A suspected ringleader of the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans was ordered held without bond during a Wednesday hearing in D.C. federal court.
Ahmed Abu Khattala, who has pleaded not guilty to a single conspiracy charge, was seized in a secret raid in Libya in June. He was held aboard a Navy warship before he was brought to the District to face trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael DiLorenzo said in court Wednesday that multiple witnesses know of Abu Khattala’s involvement in the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. DiLorenzo said the defendant’s statements corroborate that evidence.
The State Department in January designated Abu Khattala a terrorist, calling him a “senior leader” of the Benghazi branch of the militant organization Ansar al-Sharia, a group that arose after the 2011 fall of the Libyan regime of Moammar Gaddafi.
“He is the commander of an armed militia . . . designated as a terrorist organization,” DiLorenzo said in court. He said Abu Khattala was carrying a loaded weapon when he was seized and “took steps to avoid capture.”
In court papers filed Tuesday, federal prosecutors said Abu Khattala organized the attacks at a U.S. diplomatic mission and a nearby CIA annex out of a sense of ideological fervor. In the days before the attacks, he “voiced concern and opposition to the presence of an American facility in Benghazi,” prosecutors wrote.
Last year, prosecutors said, Abu Khattala expressed anger that U.S. forces captured Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, also known as Anas al-Libi, in Tripoli in connection with the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. According to prosecutors, he then took steps to retaliate.
Abu Khattala’s public defender, Michelle Peterson, did not contest the motion to hold her client without bond, given his status as a foreign national and the terrorism-related charge against him. Abu Khattala listened to the proceedings through a translation device and appeared to be watching intently, but he said nothing. Peterson told the judge that she had discussed the bond issue with him and that he agreed with her decision.
Peterson protested that prosecutors have offered her almost no information about their case. “There’s an utter lack of evidence of Mr. Khattala’s involvement in what happened in Benghazi,” she said. “It’s incredibly difficult for us to defend Mr. Khattala against the charges against him” with the “very, very limited discovery” she said prosecutors offered.
She also argued that to carry a gun in Libya, a country in the midst of violent civil unrest, was “not at all unusual.” Her client is “a member of a group that fought against the Libyan regime,” she said, a cause the United States had supported. “He has, in fact, spent a decade fighting Gaddafi.”
Peterson said she believed any statements her client made would be consistent with what he said in media interviews immediately after the attack, which was that he was not involved. She also complained of “an effort to taint Mr. Khattala’s reputation in the press.”
DiLorenzo said he has provided “some very critical video clips” to Abu Khattala’s defense attorneys and will be providing more evidence this week.
In a three-count criminal complaint unsealed June 17, Abu Khattala was also charged with killing a person during an attack on a federal facility and with a weapons offense. A U.S. official described the single charge in the indictment as a “place holder” designed to avoid revealing publicly too much of the case’s evidence while a search for witnesses continues.
In coming weeks, officials said, a superseding indictment could bring additional charges and disclose more evidence in the case. One of the additional charges could carry the death penalty, according to a U.S. official.
According to a U.S. official who has reviewed the evidence against Abu Khattala, it includes pictures and video from the attacks, testimony from witnesses and evidence of the attacks’ planners boasting of their involvement.
Before the hearing’s conclusion, Peterson relayed to Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson her client’s request for halal meals and an Arabic-language Koran while detained. Robinson said that issue should be taken up with U.S. marshals. Abu Khattala is being held in a detention center in Alexandria, Va.
Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.