CAIRO – A strange silence met the U.S. capture of a Libyan militant accused in the 2012 attack that killed the American ambassador and three others. In his hometown of Benghazi in eastern Libya, there are few threats of revenge, only speculation among supporters and opponents that Ahmed Abu Khattala was betrayed by an insider.
Abu Khattala said for months he had no fear of Americans snatching him, living at his home and saying he worked as a construction contractor. Before U.S. commandos snatched him from Benghazi a week ago, he was battling alongside the militant group Ansar al-Shariah against the troops of Khalifa Hifter, a renegade Libyan general who has waged an offensive aimed at crushing Islamic militants around Libya, Abu Khattala’s brother Abu Bakr told the Associated Press.
Abu Khattala was a prominent figure in the eastern city of Benghazi’s thriving circles of extremists, popular among young radicals for being among the most hardcore and uncompromising of those calling for Libya to be ruled by Islamic Shariah law. But he was always something of a lone figure. Even after he joined Ansar al-Shariah – the group accused by the United States of carrying out the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi – he didn’t take a leadership position or a post in its decision-making bodies, noted Fadlallah Haroun, a former rebel commander in Benghazi who met Abu Khattala in prison in the 1990s.
“He was always an outsider,” Haroun, who opposes the Islamists and whose brother is a top intelligence official, told the AP. “He was a very simple man, who was honest in his talk and independent.”
That may have made it easier for the United States to track him down. Among Benghazi officials and militants, there were multiple theories floating over who could have given away his location to the Americans. Some pointed the finger at Hifter. Others said Islamist militias may have turned him, hoping to relieve the pressure on themselves in Hifter’s offensive. So far, a week after his capture, Ansar al-Shariah has not commented – perhaps a sign it was trying to determine who betrayed him.
“For sure he was sold out,” Abu Khattala’s brother, Abu Bakr, told the Associated Press Friday. “It’s very clear that he was betrayed. We will pin it down until we figure out who did it.”
Mohammed Hegazi, a spokesman for Hifter’s forces, described Abu Khattala as a “spiritual leader” of the extremist religious groups and militias in Benghazi. He accused him of orchestrating the looting of banks in the central city of Sirte, without offering evidence.
“Abu Khattala’s source of power is the large following among extremist and terrorist groups that believe in him,” Hegazi said. “He was their spiritual leader and he was a financier.”
But Abu Khattala was not the group’s top leader – that was its founder, Mohammed al-Zawahi. While he was close to its leadership, he didn’t join any of its decision-making bodies, Haroun said.
Abu Khattala’s brother Abu Bakr said in past months, he would disappear from his home in Benghazi for several days at a time because of the fighting with Hifter’s forces. Their father last spoke with Abu Khattala on the morning of June 16, he said – and after that his phone went dead.
Abu Khattala acknowledged in an interview with the AP in January that he was present during the storming of the U.S. mission in Benghazi. But he denied involvement in the attack, saying he was trying to organize a rescue of trapped people.
In the attack, gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades and stormed the mission, many waving the black banners of Ansar al-Shariah. The compound’s main building was set ablaze. Ambassador Chris Stevens suffocated to death inside and another American was shot dead. Later in the evening, gunmen attacked and shelled a safe house, killing two more Americans.
At the time, several witnesses said they saw Abu Khattala directing fighters at the site.
One witness told the AP that when he tried to take a picture of Abu Khattala at the scene with his mobile phone, he was snatched by Abu Khattala’s followers, beaten and taken to Ansar al-Shariah’s headquarters in Benghazi. He said he overheard Abu Khattala vowing to “flatten the consulate.”
Haroun and Abu Khattala’s brother said Abu Khattala arrived in the middle of the chaos. “He was not the one who set everything off,” Haroun said. No evidence emerged that Abu Khattala was involved in the later attack on the safe house.
Abu Khattala is among a number of suspects named in a sealed indictment at the U.S. District Court in Washington for alleged involvement in the attack. The identities of the others in the indictment have not been revealed. Earlier this year, the Obama administration accused two branches of Ansar al-Shariah in the attack – the Benghazi branch and another based in the northern city of Darna – and listed them as terrorist groups.
The Darna branch is led by Sufian bin Qumu, a former detainee at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who was identified by American officials at the time as a probable member of al-Qaida. He was handed over to Libya in 2007 and later freed.
Abu Khattala was born in Benghazi to a middle class family originally from the western city of Misrata. He quit school in the 7th grade to work as a car mechanic, his brother said. His father was a soccer player on Benghazi’s team.
In the 1990s, he had close ties to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the main militant group battling Gadhafi’s rule. From the age of 24, he was detained multiple times, spending a total of 12 years in prison. After his last stint in Tripoli’s Abu Selim prison, he was freed in 2010 under a reconciliation program led by Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam.
Mohammed Abu Sedra, an Islamist lawmaker, said he knew Abu Khattala at Abu Selim. “He was very introverted, depressed all the time and never talked to anyone. I always thought that he was not normal,” he said.
Abu Khattala told the AP in January = he became involved after watching the confessions and executions of Islamists on television – a common occurrence during Gadhafi’s crackdowns in the 1980s and 1990s.
He rose to prominence during the civil war commanding a small rebel unit he created, the Abu Obaida bin Jarrah Brigade. He was one of the last rebels who held out in a siege by Gadhafi’s troops of the town of Ajdabiya before the troops overran it in a march toward Benghazi, Haroun and Abu Khattala’s brother said.
Abu Khattala also was implicated in the killing of the rebels’ military commander, Abdel-Fattah Younis. The slaying in June 2011, in the midst of the civil war, was the first strong signal of the deep divisions among rebels, particularly between Islamic extremists and army units that defected to the rebellion.
Many militants had memories of Younis’ involvement in Gadhafi’s bombings of hideouts of the Islamic Fighting Group and other Islamists in the 1990s. Others suspected him of loyalties to Gadhafi even after he defected. The rebels’ top political body ordered his arrest, and as he was being transported for questioning, gunmen attacked his convoy and abducted him.
Younis’ nephew, Mohammed Hamid Younis, said he was taken to headquarters of Abu Khattala’s brigade, where the killing took place. Abu Khattala has acknowledged Younis was held at the headquarters but not that his brigade carried out the killing.
Younis’ body was found dumped outside of Benghazi, burned and mutilated, along with the bodies of two aides.
“The body was burnt to the extent that some parts melted, his fingers were chopped off and one eye pulled out,” the nephew told the AP.
Abu Khattala was among 11 people referred to a rebel military tribunal for Younis’ death. He was detained for a few days, then set free, and later the tribunal abandoned the case apparently because of death threats.
After his indictment in the United States over the killing of the Americans was made public, Abu Khattala remained in the open, living in his unguarded home in Benghazi’s al-Leithi district. He said he was working as a construction contractor.
“We only fear God,” Abu Khattala said then. “The American government has nothing to do with me.”