Accused Benghazi Mastermind Convicted of 2012 Attacks

This courtroom sketch depicts Ahmed Abu Khattalah listening to a interpreter through earphones during the opening statement by Assistant U.S. Attorney John Crabb, second from left, at federal court in Washington. (Dana Verkouteren via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal jury found Ahmed Abu Khatallah guilty on Tuesday of terrorism charges connected to a pair of attacks in Benghazi that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Khatallah’s conviction comes more than five years after insurgents swarmed the U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, setting a fire that killed Stevens and U.S. Foreign Service officer Sean Smith.

Early the following morning at a nearby CIA annex, CIA contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were killed during a separate mortar attack.

U.S. commandos captured Khatallah overnight June 14-15, 2014, after a Libyan informant who received a $7 million reward from the State and Defense Departments lured him into a trap at a beach house near Benghazi.

That informant was the government’s star witness at Khatallah’s seven-week trial here in Washington, which also featured dramatic testimony from several survivors of the attacks.

After beginning deliberations on Nov. 24, the jury acquitted Khatallah, 46, on the most serious of the 18 counts against him, including murder of an ambassador and American government employees.

Khatallah was convicted of one count of conspiracy to provide material support or resources to terrorists and another count of providing material support or resources to terrorists. He was also convicted of property destruction, placing lives in jeopardy, and using a semiautomatic weapon during a crime of violence. Each of the two terrorism offenses carries a statutory maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Khattalah faces 20 years for the property-damage count and 10 years for the firearms offense. His sentencing date has not yet been set.

At trial, the government portrayed Khatallah as the commander of an anti-Western militia – Ubaydah bin Jarrah – that wanted to implement Islamic law in post-revolution Libya and to forcibly expel the American presence from eastern part of the country.

Defense attorneys for Khatallah insisted meanwhile that the government had no evidence of the anti-American sentiments they attributed to Khatallah.

That insistence formed the basis of a Nov. 21 motion for mistrial by Khatallah’s defense team, which accused the government of making “repeated improper and highly prejudicial arguments” during closing arguments.

Khatallah’s attorneys say the government prejudiced the jury by focusing on their client’s supposed hatred of America, trying to hang a conviction not on objective evidence but on Khatallah’s status as Middle Eastern Muslim who supports the implementation of Islamic law.

“The vitriol, jingoism and appeal to nationalist sentiments were as odious as they were prejudicial to the rights guaranteed to this defendant by the United States Constitution,” the 18-page motion states.

While the government presented several Libyan witnesses who identified Khatallah on grainy surveillance video footage taken the night of the attacks at the compound, none of them personally witnessed Khatallah carry out the attacks.

Khatallah never denied being at the compound that night, but claimed he ended up there after the attack was over, motivated by curiosity.

Government witnesses also identified one of Khatallah’s alleged associates, Mustafa al-Imam, on video surveillance footage from the night of the attacks.

U.S. commandos captured al-Imam in Libya on Oct. 29.

Like Khatallah, al-Imam will also stand trial in a U.S. federal courtroom rather than facing the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay where accused perpetrators of the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole are still awaiting trial.

President Donald Trump was adamant on the campaign trail about keeping Guantanamo open and filling it with new terror cases, but he walked back that enthusiasm last month.

After a fatal truck attack in New York carried out by an alleged supporter of the Islamic State group, Trump acknowledged that Sayfullo Saipov would be brought to justice by a federal judge more swiftly than by the hopelessly backlogged military tribunal.

Department of Justice spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said that national-security considerations factor heavily into deciding where to try foreign terror suspects.

“In every case, there is a careful evaluation of all available options for disposition of a terrorist detainee to determine what best protects national security,” Hornbuckle said in an email. “There are also legal constraints that must be observed, whether relating to a prosecution in any forum or detention under the law of war.”

Referring to al-Imam, Hornbuckle continued: “Taking all that into account, the decision was made that a prosecution in federal court was the best option to protect national security.”

Matthew Peed, a defense attorney for al-Imam with the firm Clinton Brook & Peed, said at a Nov. 20 status conference that he is still working through his security-clearance application, which he will need to access government discovery in the case.

There is no trial date yet for al-Imam.

Al-Imam will be prosecuted by the same attorneys who handled the Khatallah case: Assistant U.S. Attorney’s John Crabb, Michael DiLorenzo, Opher Shweiki and Julieanne Himelstein.

A status conference for al-Imam is scheduled for Jan. 9, 2018.

Assistant director Grant Mendenhall of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division used the conviction to reiterate how his agency will handle future terrorist attacks around the world.

“This investigation demonstrates the FBI’s ability to investigate terrorist attacks against Americans even in the most difficult conditions, determine who perpetrated the acts and bring those actors to justice,” Mendenhall said.  “We remain dedicated to the pursuit of justice in this case and others around the world where Americans and our allies have been victimized.”

Khatallah’s attorney Jeffrey Robinson of Lewis Bach did not immediately return an email seeking comment on the verdict.

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