Ahmed Abu Khattala, a suspected ringleader of the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, was brought Saturday from a Navy warship to the federal courthouse in the District of Columbia, where he entered a plea of not guilty to a single conspiracy charge.
At 3:25 p.m., Abu Khattala walked, unshackled, into a paneled courtroom in downtown Washington, wearing a black, zip-up hooded sweatshirt, black pants and a flowing gray beard. It was his first appearance in public since he was captured in Libya two weeks ago, transported across the Atlantic Ocean in a ship made of steel from the World Trade Center’s rubble, and flown by helicopter into the District on Saturday just after sunrise.
As he stood at the end of a long table, wearing a headset and with his right hand raised, Abu Khattala said through an interpreter that he understood the proceedings and would tell the truth.
His public defender, Michelle Peterson, told a federal magistrate judge that her client was not guilty of the charge of “conspiracy to provide material support” on which a federal grand jury in the District had indicted him Thursday.
Ten minutes after the hearing began, it was over. Flanked on each side by guards in suits and ties, Abu Khattala walked less than a dozen steps to a wooden door, which was opened for him. The Libyan suspect was led out of the courthouse to a waiting caravan of black SUVs, which wailed down Third Street NW and took him across the Potomac River to an Alexandria detention center that has held other terrorism suspects since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The rare Saturday hearing, in the federal courthouse within blocks of the U.S. Capitol, was a presentment hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola. The session was the beginning of what are almost certain to be lengthy federal criminal proceedings.
Abu Khattala is the first of the alleged perpetrators to be apprehended in the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. He faces criminal charges in the deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and the three other Americans. Stevens was the first U.S. ambassador to be killed in the line of duty in more than three decades.
According to a law enforcement official, Abu Khattala was questioned during the journey from the Mediterranean Sea aboard the USS New York, an amphibious transport dock. “There were conversations,” the official said. The ship’s movements were a well-guarded secret, and all of its outbound communications were blacked out for security.
As of a few days after his June 15 capture, Abu Khattala had not been informed of his Miranda rights to remain silent and be represented by an attorney, under a “public safety” exception to those constitutional rights, according to several U.S. officials. But on Saturday, two law enforcement officials said that Abu Khattala had been told of his Miranda rights “days ago” and continued talking with investigators afterward. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation.
During the brief dawn helicopter ride, he was flown from the ship to a landing area near the Washington Navy Yard. Before the hearing, he was fingerprinted and photographed.
Abu Khattala’s is one of the most significant U.S. terrorism cases in recent memory. His capture in Benghazi by U.S. Special Operations forces came 21 months after the attacks on the American diplomatic mission there. It was a breakthrough for the Obama administration in an investigation that had dragged on after President Obama promised that the perpetrators of the attacks would be brought to justice. The slow pace had fueled Republican criticism of the administration’s handling of the case — and of the Libyan mission’s vulnerability in the first place.
In a three-count criminal complaint unsealed June 17, Abu Khattala was charged with killing a person during an attack on a federal facility, providing support to terrorists, and a weapons offense.
According to a U.S. official, prosectors empaneled a separate grand jury to indict Abu Khattala on just one charge, which they consider a “place holder,” to avoid revealing publicly too much of the case’s evidence while a search continues for witnesses to the Benghazi attacks. The charge, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, is conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists resulting in death.
In coming weeks, federal officials said, the single charge is likely to be joined by a superseding indictment that 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.
“In a courtroom in our nation’s capital, today we took the first step down the road to justice for the four American heroes killed in Benghazi,” said Ronald C. Machen Jr., U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.
The U.S. attorney’s office has filed more than a dozen criminal complaints arising from the Benghazi attacks, but the charges against Abu Khattala are the only ones that have been made public.
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.
In recent years, major terrorism cases have tended to be handled by federal prosecutors in Alexandria or in New York, so the assignment of Benghazi-related prosecutions to the U.S. attorney in Washington is something of a departure. Officials in that office said the national security team there has, during the past three years, filed more cases against suspected terrorists than any of the 92 other U.S. attorney’s offices across the country, though many of them remain sealed.
In a recent interview, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said, “D.C. is, in some ways, a natural place to bring these cases.” And he pointed out that “all cases can be brought in D.C., usually by the statutes or where the person first lands.”
Neil H. MacBride, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia who has prosecuted some of the nation’s most significant terrorism cases, said the Abu Khattala prosecution will be challenging because the case “may not be built with the traditional evidentiary building blocks of fingerprints and shell casings and eyewitnesses who are interviewed by detectives.” MacBride, now a partner with the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell, noted that the FBI could not gain access to the crime scene for two weeks or more, so “it was a contaminated crime scene out of the box.”
But MacBride said the fact that the government deployed Special Operations forces, such as the Army’s Delta Force, to apprehend Abu Khattala signaled to him the strength of the evidence. “I know that the Special Operations forces don’t deploy their elite teams to the far side of the globe to nab bad guys on behalf of the Department of Justice unless there’s a really strong case.”
Adam Goldman and Ileana Najarro contributed to this report.