Benghazi suspect has ‘extensive contacts’ with jihadist leaders in Libya

On July 1, the US government filed a motion arguing that the only suspect charged with participating in the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya should be held in pretrial detention. The motion was subsequently granted.

The court document provides specific allegations concerning the role that the jailed suspect, Ahmed Abu Khatallah, played in the events of that night.

Although US officials had been quick to portray the attack in Benghazi as part of a reaction to an anti-Islam video, US prosecutors now say that Khatallah’s “participation … was motivated by his extremist ideology.”

And “days before” the attack, Khatallah “voiced concern and opposition to the presence of an American facility in Benghazi.” Khatallah has also allegedly “continued to make efforts to target American personnel and property since the” attack in Benghazi and he has “discussed with others his deadly and destructive intentions.”

According to US prosecutors, Khatallah “was a commander of Obaidah Ibn Al Jarrah, an extremist brigade that was absorbed into” Ansar Al Sharia (AAS) “after the recent Libya revolution.” The government describes AAS as “an Islamic extremist militia in Libya that holds anti-Western views and advocates the establishment of Sharia law in Libya.” Khatallah became a “senior leader” of AAS after his brigade merged with the organization.

Several members of AAS in Benghazi have been identified as being among the group that initially breached the gate at the US Mission on the night of Sept. 11, 2012. These fighters include Khatallah’s “known associates.”

Beyond the allegations of Khatallah’s role in the attack, the government’s filing includes several other reported details that may point to his ties to the broader terror network. The court filing provides little insight into Khatallah’s relationships with other jihadists, however.

‘Extensive contacts with senior-level members of extremist groups throughout Libya’

One reason the US government recommended that Khatallah be detained is because he could “communicate his plans for additional deadly attacks to other extremists and encourage them to carry out those plans.”

The government alleges that Khatallah “has extensive contacts with senior-level members of extremist groups throughout Libya.” Members of these organizations, as well as Khatallah’s “close associates who participated in” the Benghazi attack, “are similarly dedicated to carrying out plots to attack American and Western interests.”

Although Khatallah’s contacts in other extremist groups are not identified in the legal filing, intelligence and evidence compiled by American authorities indicate that Khatallah’s men were among fighters from several jihadist groups that participated in the assault on the US Mission.

The US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence identified the groups responsible for the Benghazi attack in a report released on Jan. 15. “Individuals affiliated with terrorist groups, including AQIM, Ansar al Sharia, AQAP, and the Mohammad Jamal Network, participated in the September 11, 2012, attacks,” the report reads.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are both official branches of al Qaeda and have sworn allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s emir. The head of AQAP, Nasir al Wuhayshi, was also appointed the general manager of al Qaeda’s network in August 2013.

In October 2013, both the UN and the US designated the Mohammad Jamal Network (MJN) as a terrorist organization. The designations explicitly recognized the MJN’s ties to al Qaeda’s senior leadership, including Ayman al Zawahiri, as well as to AQIM and AQAP.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report also cited intelligence showing that AQAP, AQIM, and the Mohammad Jamal Network all established training camps in eastern Libya after the rebellion against Muammar el Qaddafi began in 2011.

In a terrorist designation released on Jan. 10, the State Department indicated that fighters from Ansar al Sharia chapters in both Derna and Benghazi took part in the attack. Ansar al Sharia in Derna is led by a former Guantanamo detainee named Sufian Ben Qumu. During his time in US custody, intelligence officials identified Ben Qumu as an al Qaeda operative.

Thus, when Khatallah and his men allegedly took part in the Benghazi raid, they were accompanied by fighters from at least four different terrorist organizations with known al Qaeda ties: AQAP, AQIM, the MJN, and Ansar al Sharia in Derna.

The US government reiterates in its legal filing that Khatallah has “significant relationships with active leaders and members of extremist groups in Libya, including AAS, who are similarly bent on harming American personnel and property.”

Alleged retaliation plans after capture of senior al Qaeda operative

In late 2013, US prosecutors say, Khatallah “expressed anger that the US conducted a capture operation of a Libyan fugitive in Tripoli” and he “took steps to retaliate against the US by targeting US interests in the region.”

The “Libyan fugitive” isn’t named, but the term surely refers to a senior al Qaeda operative known as Abu Anas al Libi.

At the time of his capture in October 2013, al Libi had been wanted by the US for well over a decade. Al Libi is accused of helping al Qaeda prepare for the Aug. 7, 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Witnesses during the embassy bombings trial identified al Libi as a trained al Qaeda operative who performed surveillance on the embassies and other Western targets prior to the attack. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Al Qaeda seeks to spin capture of top operative.]

An unclassified report published in August 2012 highlights al Qaeda’s strategy for building a fully operational network in Libya and offers an analysis of al Libi’s suspected role.

The report (“Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile“) was prepared by the federal research division of the Library of Congress under an agreement with the Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office. Al Libi is identified by the report’s authors as the “builder of al Qaeda’s network in Libya.” The report concludes that Ansar al Sharia is likely a part of this network as well.

The US government’s filing in Khatallah’s case does not say that the imprisoned Benghazi suspect knew al Libi personally or that the pair conspired together. It is possible that such details, if they exist, were left out of the court papers. Based on the publicly available evidence, any conclusion would be speculative.

‘Supervised the exploitation of material from the scene’

Prosecutors allege that after US personnel fled from the Mission, Khatallah “entered the compound and supervised the exploitation from the scene by numerous men.” No further details are offered.

US intelligence officials have previously told The Long War Journal that another suspect in the Benghazi attack is thought to have brought materials recovered in the compound back to al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. That suspect, Faraj al Chalabi, served as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden during the 1990s. Al Chalabi was detained in Pakistan and Libya following the attack, but eventually freed.

It is not publicly known if Khatallah has any ties to Chalabi, and the court documents do not assert any relationship between the two.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • FGM says:

    So he is guilty of looting and knowing local extremists, and it was not about the video. Well, if you are the US Gov and read in the NYTimes that K. mentioned the video, do you take the average view that it is a NYT fib to help “the narrative,” or believe it might be true and kidnap the man, using an expensive naval warship travel mode, on the chance he might play along with the video game?

  • foxmulder says:

    This doesn’t go well with Obama’s claims that Al-Qaeda has been descimated and on the run. But then thats why they said it was all about a video. Were dealing with a very very corrupt government in Washington.

  • Jeff Edelman says:

    Seeings how it was the regime’s position that the attack was caused by a video and now it says the leader was motivated by extremist views, might khatalla’s counsel call rice, clinton and obama to the stand? If this were to happen, Americans possibly (barring another obama lie) could finally find out where obama was and what he was doing the night four Americans died. Now, of course, clinton will attempt to avoid testifying by passing out and hitting her head. Obaidah, obaidee. Life goes on (except those of four Americans).

  • IK says:

    It’s the usual pattern for this administration for anti-terrorist efforts. Make some wild clam that suits your political needs, like it was a video, or that al Qaeda is defeated.
    That headline is dutifuly reported by the media of which 95% voted for them and most gave them money.
    The LIV (Low Information Voter) reads the headline and thinks “They’re not to blame for anything”, or “Wow, they’re doing a good job”, and goes back to their video games, reality TV, and government benefit checks.
    Then when knowledgeable persons like the people who run this board ask questions about these fraudulent claims, the administration falls back to a defensive position by focusing on various adjectives, like saying that they were referring to “core” al Qaeda when they said it was defeated. Like this:
    Administration:” Al-Qaeda is defeated”.
    LWJ: ”But there are more members of AQ now than ever before”.
    Admin: ”We were clearly referring to core AQ, which has been defeated”.
    LWJ: “But they have replaced the individuals who have been killed or captured”
    Admin: ”We were clearly referring to those members of AQ, in Pakistan, who were in AQ on 9/11. Those individuals have been defeated, so we’re right, you’re wrong, and why can’t you figure such simple things out?”
    It’s like peeling back layers and layers of lies to ever get to the truth, and their 51% voter base doesn’t care beyond the first headline.

  • Zed says:

    The comments above are typical of some members of the LWJ community who use the message board for partisan comments that do little to further our understanding of the threat facing our country and how we should respond.
    The 51% that you attempt to demean in your comments are your fellow Americans and some of them disagree with you on national security and other issues. That does not make them any less American or worthy of your scorn.
    Some of the issues are complicated and some of the answers are not easy. For example, how does one define an al queda member and differentiate them from a ‘local islamist’? Was KSM al queda? How many islamists in Benghazi are interested in attacking the US? I only offer these questions as examples of things that – for me – have some grey area to them.
    How do we know that there are more members of al queda than ever before? Is there a census taken that we are privy to?
    Many of the comments on the message board are offensive and attempt to demean people who have different views on these issues. People with progressive views are treated as if their views have less validity than those who are more conservative. To me, this only moves us away from the important issues and creates a more narrow group of people reading LWJ.
    To Bill and company who do such important work in bringing this information to us, I ask you to consider changing the comments section by asking people to steer clear of partisanship and to be respectful of others.

  • irebukeu says:

    How do the people that claim a video had NOTHING to do with the attack on Benghazi explain the reasons why the Libyan defenders of the mission melted away as the attack began, putting up No resistance whatsoever?
    The brigade themselves explained it the very night of the attack on one of its facebook pages.
    The February 17 Martyrs Brigade is one of the most important government-sponsored militias in eastern Libya. Members of the brigade were employed as a guard unit at the US mission in Benghazi on Sep. 11, 2012. The brigade is openly sympathetic to Ansar al-Sharia.
    In an “urgent” statement posted on a brigade Facebook page at 11:31 p.m. on the very night of the attack, the brigade, in effect, confirmed reports that its men stood down during the attack
    The statement explicitly refers to an “insult” to the Prophet Muhammad. It reads in part: “The February 17 Martyrs Brigade denies categorically the occurrence of any confrontation between it and the young men who overran the embassy jealously protecting our noble Prophet and protesting against the insult to him.”
    source article


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