TRIPOLI, Libya — Ahmed Abu Khattala — the Islamist militant U.S. forces captured in Libya over the weekend — did not seem to have the personality for leadership. He was a standoffish oddball, the son of a government employee, who had spent more than a decade in the brutal prisons of ruler Moammar Gaddafi.
But, in the chaotic time after Gaddafi’s fall, Abu Khattala had two credentials that led people to follow him. The prison time was one. The other was a fierce disdain for anyone who had worked with Gaddafi’s government.
In a country full of guns and anger, Abu Khattala came to command his own militia. He appeared to be untainted in a country where few leaders had no connections to the hated old leadership.
Commanding a brigade “is a very complicated task, and he is a very simple man,” said Mohamed Abu Sidra, a prominent member of Libya’s General National Congress, who had spent time in prison with Abu Khattala. At the time, Abu Sidra said, he was surprised to hear that Abu Khattala — known in prison as a loner who talked to himself — was in charge of something so big.
Now, Abu Khattala’s militia is blamed for two of the most infamous acts of violence in Libya’s bloody post-revolutionary years. One was the 2011 killing of Gen. Abdul Fattah Younis, a former Gaddafi loyalist who had defected to lead the rebels fighting the ruler.
The other was the reason Abu Khattala was snatched in a joint Special Operations-FBI mission last weekend. He allegedly served as a ringleader in the attacks on U.S. compounds in Benghazi in 2012, which left four Americans dead — including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
By 2012, the formal militia he commanded during the uprising had been dismantled, but people here say that he had a core following of mostly young jihadists and Islamists from his neighborhood whom he could rally and that he was giving orders to them on the night of the Benghazi attacks.
Since then, however, it appears that the personality that had briefly turned Abu Khattala into a leader had made him a loner again.
He was said to move about Benghazi by himself — a reckless decision, because the Americans and a renegade anti-Islamist general were probably looking for him. Some of the more powerful militias had tried to rein in his movements and put him under their protection, said one former Benghazi fighter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of potential backlash.
“His followers are shocked” by the news of his capture, the former fighter said from Benghazi. “They can’t believe it.”
Abu Khattala is apparently in his early 40s; his exact age is unclear. Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who tracks extremists, said Abu Khattala was born in 1973 in Benghazi. Soufan said that he comes from a middle-class Libyan family and that his father is a retired government employee. He has a brother who was born in 1975 and works in the medical field, Soufan said.
Abu Khattala was arrested in about 1991 by the Gaddafi government for his involvement in Islamist militant activities in Benghazi. Soufan said Abu Khattala spent a long time at the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli.
He apparently was released in 2004 as part of an amnesty program sponsored by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the dictator’s son.
After his release, Abu Khattala — a burly man — had started a small construction company in Benghazi, hiring local youths to help paint and build houses, a neighbor said. In 2012, he told reporters from the Reuters news agency that he did not attend college, had never left the country and was not married.
“He was a quiet man, a mysterious man,” said the neighbor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from Islamist militias there. Others who met Abu Khattala in Benghazi describe him as extremely serious and resolutely opposed to the efforts to build a democratic state.
“Nobody in the neighborhood really knew him,” the neighbor said, adding that even he was unsure whether Abu Khattala was married.
In 2011, a rebellion against Gaddafi began in the east of Libya, where Benghazi is located. Abu Khattala used his local network to collect money for food, clothes and even weapons for the fighters.
Eventually, he took up arms himself. He started a small Islamist militia called Obeida ibn al-Jarrah and later came to ally himself with Ansar al-Sharia, although militia leaders here say that relationship is somewhat murky. That militia, whose name means “partisans of Islamic law,” espouses an extremely conservative Salafist strain of Islam.
“He is a jihadist,” said Adel Hasi, a former rebel commander who last met with Abu Khattala earlier this year to discuss building an Islamic state in Libya. Unlike the rest of the brigades fighting Gaddafi, Abu Khattala “refused to cooperate with any army or police who had defected to the rebels,” he said.
Abu Khattala lived in the family home in the al-Laithi district of Benghazi, known for its unusually large population of Islamist militants, according to locals. The modest, concrete-brick home remains unpainted and is a drab, steely gray. In the salon where Abu Khattala receives guests, two flags adorned with the Muslim profession of faith, and associated with al-Qaeda and jihadist movements, are mounted on a wooden cabinet.
The evening of Sept. 11, 2012, brought an unprecedented level of scrutiny to Islamist groups in Benghazi. That night, Islamist militias attacked the U.S. diplomatic mission in the city, then assaulted a nearby CIA compound early the next morning. The chaotic attacks left the diplomatic post in flames and resulted in the deaths of Stevens and three other Americans. To this day, the assaults are a controversial topic in U.S. politics.
Abu Khattala always has denied involvement in the Benghazi attacks, but U.S. officials have repeatedly blamed him and Ansar al-Sharia. In July, the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia filed charges against him.
Abu Khattala also has been named a “specially designated global terrorist,” allowing officials to freeze his financial assets and bar American citizens and companies from doing business with him. Multiple journalistic sources have linked him to the attacks: A long 2013 investigation by the New York Times referred to a number of witnesses who placed Abu Khattala at the scene during the attack on the diplomatic post and said he appeared to be directing it.
Since the attacks, Abu Khattala had met openly with journalists in Benghazi. The New York Times memorably interviewed him at a hotel restaurant, where he had a strawberry frappe.
In the past few weeks, however, the dangers of his open approach were more obvious. Khalifa
Hifter, a renegade former Libyan general, has begun an armed campaign against militias in Benghazi.
Despite that threat, however, Abu Khattala often moved around the city and its suburbs alone, including to a farm he owned south of Benghazi in an area known as al-Gawasha, which has been the site of recent fierce clashes between militants and forces loyal to Hifter.
On Saturday night, he apparently was captured at a villa south of Benghazi where he had been staying. He was unarmed.
Fahrenthold reported from Washington. Adam Taylor, Adam Goldman and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.