When Ahmed Abu Khatallah, accused of leading the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi was seized by U.S. special forces in Libya after midnight Monday, it raised a number of questions. Not the least being why it took 21 months to capture him.
The answer is more complex than it might first appear. There were essentially three major issues in play: the FBI and the Justice Department were determined to build a clean legal case against Khatallah that would stand up in public court; diplomatic and military factors complicated the timetable, and more than a half-dozen government agencies — some with their own specific concerns — had to coordinate in carrying out the secret mission.
These agencies included the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, which runs the special forces, including the Navy’s SEALs and the Army Delta Force; the FBI, which gathered the legal evidence against Khatallah; the State Department, which had to prepare for the international legal issues; the Navy, which is bringing Khatallah back to the United States; the Justice Department, which will prosecute the captured suspect; the CIA, which provided intelligence support; the White House, where the president had to approve the operation, and other units of the government that target terrorists. All had “equities” in this covert action — bureaucratic-speak for a piece of the action.
The Obama White House was particularly eager to build a detailed legal case against the suspect so that he could be tried in a U.S. federal court and not sent to Guantanamo, where he would face a military tribunal. To build that case required months of investigation by the FBI in Libya. Though Khatallah was living openly in Benghazi for much of the time, and granting interviews to the press, he strongly denied he had led the attack on the U.S. mission — although he admitted he joined in. But other witnesses said he was seen playing an active role.
The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed in the September 11, 2012 attack, as were Sean Smith, a State Department IT specialist, and Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, CIA contractors who had both served as Navy SEALs. The episode became a political firestorm, with Republicans accusing the Obama administration of misleading the public on the cause of the attack.