Libyan terrorist suspect to go in trial in US over 2012 Benghazi attack

Ahmed Abu Khattala is accused of being the mastermind of the attack on the US consulate in 2012, when the ambassador to Libya and three other Americans died

FILE - This Sept. 12, 2012 file photo shows glass, debris and overturned furniture are strewn inside a room in the gutted U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. The trial of Ahmed Abu Khattala, the suspected mastermind of the 2012 Benghazi, Libya, attacks will be one of the biggest terrorism cases yet for the U.S. Justice Department under a leader who has said it shouldn't be handling such cases. (AP Photo/Ibrahim Alaguri, File)
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When a team of Delta Force and FBI agents took up their positions in a safe house near the seashore in Benghazi, Libya, they set in motion a series of events that brought one of America’s most wanted to a courthouse in Washington and could offer a blueprint for prosecuting terrorist suspects.

Ahmed Abu Khattala is accused of being the mastermind of the attack on the US consulate in 2012, when the ambassador to Libya and three other Americans died.

On Monday his trial will begin in what amounts to a test of whether the civilian criminal system can cope with sensitive intelligence. Until now, US president Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions, his attorney general, have argued that such suspects should be sent to Guantanamo Bay rather than bringing them into criminal prosecutions, which brings rights such as access to a lawyer and a chance to see prosecution evidence.

Khattala’s journey to a federal court began in June 2014, when an eight-man commando team slipped secretly into Benghazi by boat to lay their trap.

An arrest warrant alleged he had been the leader of Ubayda Bin Jarrah, an extremist group fighting to impose Sharia on Libya and which later merged with Ansar Al Sharia.

“All team members were armed with pistols and dressed in civilian clothing that was intended to blend in with the environment,” reads the court’s account of the operation.

“In addition to their side arms, half the team carried backpacks containing assault-style weapons.”

They divided themselves among the villa’s four rooms as they waited for Khattala. He arrived shortly after ten o’clock at night, guided into the trap by an acquaintance.

Three members of the team grabbed him as he entered, throwing him to ground. He was pinned to the floor until he exhausted himself and gave up trying to punch, bite and kick his captors.

He was taken to the bathroom to be told he was in the custody of the American government.

“The entire apprehension — from Abu Khattala’s entrance into the villa until the conversation in the bathroom — lasted approximately 11 minutes,” reads the account.

His eyes were covered, ears plugged and his mouth gagged before he was led over the beach to a waiting boat and then on to the USS New York, an amphibious warfare vessel waiting 10 minutes away in international waters.

For several days he was interrogated by intelligence agents hunting for details of terrorist networks and operations.

It was only then, after five days in a makeshift brig, that he was read his Miranda rights under American law and told he was entitled to a lawyer.

After being informed there was no lawyer aboard the ship, he said he would continue talking. This time, FBI agents questioned him, gathering evidence to be used for a criminal prosecution as the ship steamed for the US.

Prosecutors said it was part of a plan, almost a year in the drafting, to ensure that as much intelligence as possible could be extracted before the detainee was offered the legal protections of the American justice system, such as the right to remain silent.

But ahead of Monday’s opening, Khattala objected to the use of evidence gathered during the 13-day voyage. He said his rights had been violated and accused the government of slowing the journey by not flying him to the US.

Last week, Judge Christopher Cooper of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, rejected the complaint and ruled the evidence was admissible.

The result is a breakthrough for those, such as officials in the Obama administration, who argued that prosecutions in civilian courts were a better option than using military tribunals or holding prisoners without trial in Guantanamo Bay.

David Kelley, a former US attorney in New York, which has handled multiple international terrorism prosecutions, said: “Time and time again we have shown that we have a system that can withstand constitutional scrutiny and send people to jail for substantial periods of time.”

Civil rights lawyers have concerns, however, fearing the decision shows how the courts are bending to the government’s national security arguments.

And the Trump administration remains publicly opposed.

During the election campaign, Mr Trump promised to keep the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay running, saying he would “load it up with some bad dudes”.

Mr Sessions outlined the concerns about using civilian courts during a radio interview this year.

“I don't think we're better off bringing these people to federal court in New York and trying them in federal court where they get discovery rights to find out our intelligence, and get court-appointed lawyers and things of that nature,” he said.

The Benghazi attack has already been subjected to intense scrutiny. Critics accused the Obama administration — and Hillary Clinton, the then secretary of state, in particular — of failing to implement proper security and of mounting a cover-up.

Officials initially said the violence was spontaneous and erupted from protests outside American diplomatic facilities around the world in response to a blasphemous film about the Prophet Mohammed.

It was only later they admitted it was a planned assault by a militant group armed with RPGs and small arms.

Such was the controversy, that potential jurors were quizzed last week on whether they had strong feelings about the attack and Ms Clinton’s handling of the US response.

Khattala, a 46-year-old former car mechanic, has pleaded not guilty to all 18 charges.

He faces maximum sentence of life in prison after the government opted not to seek the death penalty.