Benghazi attack suspect Ahmed Abu Khatallah was watched by U.S. commandos, law enforcement and intelligence for days before his capture, several U.S. officials said Tuesday.
Not a single shot was fired when the manhunt was successfully completed over the weekend, U.S. officials said. Abu Khatallah’s arrest and detention marks the first by the United States in connection with the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
The militia leader was lured to a location south of the city in eastern Libya and grabbed without a fight, multiple officials said. Intelligence provided by local Libyans was said to have been helpful, the officials said.
One former Libyan intelligence official expressed surprise Abu Khatallah was taken without a fight and noted that the alleged mastermind of the attack was well-guarded.
Abu Khatallah will be brought to U.S. soil to face charges “in the coming days” for his role in the attack that left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. citizens dead, said Edward Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
The September 11, 2012, attack continues to be a political controversy about U.S. security abroad, especially now that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a potential presidential candidate.
Abu Khatallah, who faces three federal criminal charges, will be tried in a U.S. court, said Attorney General Eric Holder.
“We retain the option of adding additional charges in the coming days,” Holder said. “Even as we begin the process of putting (Abu) Khatallah on trial and seeking his conviction before a jury, our investigation will remain ongoing as we work to identify and arrest any co-conspirators.”
Abu Khatallah was taken to a U.S. Navy ship in the Mediterranean, according to sources. He is now undergoing questioning about the 2012 Benghazi attacks and anything else he knows about terrorist activity.
In recent days, Army Delta Force commandos, FBI and intelligence agencies were watching and waiting for Abu Khatallah, who went into hiding last year after a flurry of media interviews that seemed to mock any U.S. manhunt for him.
The Pentagon declined to discuss further details of the raid.
“I’m not going to get into specifics on the actual execution of the operation,” spokesman Adm. John Kirby said Tuesday.
Abu Khatallah is one of several people under indictment, but he is the only one captured, a law enforcement source said. If convicted, Abu Khatallah could face the death penalty.
Kirby said there were no civilian casualties in the operation, and all U.S. personnel involved have departed safely from Libya.
Hillary Clinton’s response
The Benghazi incident raised questions about security measures at the compound, and whether President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Clinton had heeded warnings about possible assaults. Those questions still endure, especially as Clinton considers a run for the presidency in 2016.
At a CNN town hall meeting Tuesday, Clinton said she was “very pleased” with the arrest of Abu Khatallah, whom she described as “the leader of the attack against Benghazi.”
But she acknowledged the grief or anger felt by families of the four Americans who were killed and said she empathized with the relatives. One mother, Pat Smith, delivered a message to Clinton through CNN earlier in the day demanding answers about prior security concerns at the Benghazi consulate.
“I totally relate to her as a mother — or any of the mothers of the four Americans that night. I can see why they’re inconsolable,” Clinton said.
“I’m still looking for answers,” Clinton added. “We’re doing our best we can to find out what happened.
“Now that we have Khatallah in custody, hopefully we will learn more from (that) perspective,” she said.
Clinton said she wants to know what was behind the attack. “It was, after all, the fog of war,” she said.
Obama described Abu Khatallah as allegedly “one of the masterminds of the attack.”
“It’s a message to the world, that when Americans are attacked, no matter how long it matter how long it takes, we will find those responsible and we will bring them to justice. Regardless how long it takes, we will find you,” Obama said.
“Our diplomats serve with incredible courage and valor in some very difficult situations. They need to know that this country has their back and will always go after anybody who goes after us,” Obama said.
In a statement Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel praised the service members who captured the suspect for their “unrelenting commitment to hold accountable those who harm American citizens.”
“Their tireless efforts may only be known to a few but are felt by all Americans who are proud of what they do every day to defend this nation,” Hagel said.
Last year, federal prosecutors filed sealed charges against Abu Khatallah in the Benghazi attacks, in which scores of militants using rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons assaulted the compound.
On Tuesday, a federal judge unsealed the charges, which accuse Abu Khatallah of killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility with a firearm and dangerous weapon, and of attempting and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists resulting in death.
The charges, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, also accuse him of discharging, brandishing, using, carrying and possessing a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.
Abu Khatallah is undergoing intelligence interviews before he is brought to the United States in the coming days, according to U.S. officials. Such interviews typically are done by the FBI-led High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG team, that includes agents from the FBI, CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said, however, he believed Abu Khatallah should be tried in Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. military prison in Cuba that the Obama administration is now trying to shutter.
“I’d bring him to Guantanamo. Where else can you take him to?” McCain said.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, disagreed with McCain and others who suggested the suspect should go to Guantanamo.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” he told reporters when asked on his way into a policy luncheon. “We go to Guantanamo, the rest of the world says, ‘How can you lecture us about secret prisons?'”
Leahy said, “We go to our federal courts, we show the rest of the world we’re brave, we can do it. We don’t have to run and hide. I like our justice system.”
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden ruled out Guantanamo as a holding facility for Abu Khatallah, citing how Obama hasn’t added any detainee to the U.S. base in Cuba since he took office.
She cited the successful prosecutions of terrorists in U.S. courts such as the aspiring Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, so-called underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and al Qaeda propagandist Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who was also Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law.
Mother wants answers
Pat Smith, the mother of Sean Smith, a State Department information officer who died in the Benghazi attack, told CNN on Tuesday that she is still unsatisfied with U.S. responses on why the consulate wasn’t given additional protection when it asked.
“Why did they deny him the security they asked for over eight times?” Smith said. “Why can’t they just give me an answer on something?”
She said the blame belongs to Clinton.
Earlier this year, Clinton said the deaths of Americans in Libya was her biggest regret during the four years she headed the State Department.
“It was a terrible tragedy losing four Americans — two diplomats and — now it is public so I can say — two CIA operatives,” Clinton said in January at a National Automobile Dealers Association meeting in New Orleans
An ardent critic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, called for a delay of criminal prosecution and said Abu Khatallah should be interrogated for intelligence.
“We should have some quality time with this guy. Weeks and months. Don’t torture him, but have some quality time with him,” Graham said. “I’m glad they caught the gentleman and at the end of the day I hope we gather intelligence through the law of war and interrogation.
“If they bring him to the United States, they’re going to Mirandize this guy and it would be a mistake for the ages to read this guy his Miranda rights,” Graham said.
CNN interview with suspect
Republican lawmakers, who have accused the Obama administration of a political coverup over Benghazi, have regularly criticized the Justice Department for failing to bring Abu Khatallah to justice even as he taunted U.S. authorities in meeting with CNN’s Arwa Damon at a well-known luxury hotel in Benghazi in May 2013.
During a two-hour interview without cameras, Abu Khatallah provided a rambling account of the Benghazi attacks and even defended al Qaeda.
Abu Khatallah didn’t deny he was there the night of the consulate attack.
“Is this a journalistic interview or an interrogation?” he told CNN when asked about his role.
CNN: “It’s a journalistic interview.”
Abu Khatallah: “The way that you are asking is like an interrogation, I have experience with interrogations.”
CNN: “What time did you arrive?”
Abu Khatallah: “I can’t tell you exactly.”
At another point, Abu Khatallah stated about the compound: “I didn’t know where the place was. When I heard, we went to examine the situation. When we withdrew and there was shooting with medium guns, and there were RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) in the air and people panicked, we tried to control traffic.”
But he said by the time he entered the compound, everyone had withdrawn. Abu Khatallah also claimed in the interview that Ambassador Stevens suffocated because he was trying to burn important documents.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki referred Tuesday to how a reporter had contact with the suspect a year ago.
“The comparison to the fact that a member of the media, with all due respect, had contact with or interviewed this individual is not relevant,” Psaki said. “Frankly, it is not a surprise that an individual like this would show up for an interview. We don’t think they would show up for a scheduled meeting with the special forces. So obviously it is more challenging to undertake our operations.”
Pentagon spokesman Kirby was asked whether there had been other attempts to capture Abu Khatallah.
“The presumption in the question is that you know he was going to McDonald’s for milkshakes every Friday night, and we could have just picked him up in a taxicab. I mean these people deliberately try to evade capture,” Kirby said.
Last January, a Senate Intelligence Committee report on Benghazi said the panel’s majority believed that attack was “likely preventable” based on known security shortfalls at the facility and prior warnings.
In early May, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, pressed questions about the administration’s handling of consulate security and announced he would form a select committee to investigate the Benghazi attack. Boehner’s announcement came after previously unreleased documents, including an e-mail from a White House national security aide, raised questions about what the Obama administration knew about the armed assault and how it responded in the days after.
The attack occurred 11 years to the day after the terror attacks on U.S. soil that killed 2,977 people. The diplomatic mission was assaulted and burned, and later that night mortar and rocket fire was directed against a U.S. diplomatic annex in the city.
The attack was first portrayed as violence by an angry mob responding to a video made in the U.S. that mocked Islam and the Prophet Mohammed, but officials later determined that it was a terrorist attack.
CNN’s Jomana Karadsheh, Lisa Desjardins and Michael Pearson contributed to this report.