WASHINGTON (CN) – Attorneys delivered closing arguments Thursday in the trial of the suspected ringleader of the deadly 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, capping off one of the most high-profile terrorism cases tried in a U.S. courtroom.
The day-long arguments in the case against Ahmed Abu Khatallah closed nearly seven weeks of sometimes dramatic testimony from survivors who provided intimate and harrowing accounts of overnight attacks on Sept. 11, 2012, that resulted in the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and Sean Smith with the U.S. Foreign Service.
The two perished in a fire during an attack at the U.S. diplomatic compound while two other Americans, CIA contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, were killed in a separate mortar attack at a nearby CIA annex early the next morning.
Although Benghazi became a partisan flash point on Capitol Hill, the polarized politics around the attacks largely stayed out of the courtroom. But during closing arguments, public defender Michelle Peterson accused the government of playing to biases by portraying her client as anti-American.
“They want you to hate him enough to disregard holes in the evidence,” Peterson said. “There’s no evidence that he hates America.”
The prosecution stressed Khatallah’s alleged anti-American sentiment repeatedly Thursday, as it drove home for jurors the case it had built against the suspect: that he commanded an anti-Western Islamist extremist militia that planned a terror attack on the U.S. facilities in Benghazi to remove the U.S. presence from eastern Libya.
“Ladies and gentlemen, he hates America and that’s why he committed this attack,” Michael DiLorenzo with the U.S. Attorney’s Office said to jurors.
Ambassador Stevens had wanted to rebuild Libya after the United States helped overthrow Moammar Gadhafi, DiLorenzo said, calling the late Libyan leader a “horrible dictator.”
“He wanted a free Libya,” DiLorenzo said of Stevens, adding that he had established the diplomatic mission in Benghazi to ensure Libyans in the eastern part of the country were not forgotten.
The U.S. presence there threatened the agenda of Khatallah, who didn’t trust Western ideals and who sees the West as the “cause of all the world’s problems,” DiLorenzo said.
Determined not to allow the United States to stand in the way of fulfilling his “fanatical agenda,” DiLorenzo said Khatallah took action on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, resulting in the deaths of the four Americans.
None of the witnesses called by the government personally saw Khatallah at the compound, but several identified him and some of his close associates on grainy surveillance footage taken the night of the attacks.
Peterson questioned the motives of some of the witnesses, including a commander for the February 17th Martyrs Brigade tasked with security for the compound who testified Khatallah asked him for weapons and to stand down on the night of the attack.
Why didn’t he report that, Peterson asked the jurors.
Peterson also questioned whether the government’s star witness, who testified under the pseudonym Ali Majrisi and identified Khatallah on the video footage, was influenced by the $7 million reward he received from the State and Defense departments for his role in Khatallah’s capture.
During rebuttal, Julieanne Himelstein of the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Majrisi got the reward because he helped the United States capture a terrorist. Unable to remain in Libya for cooperating with the United States, he relocated his family here when he could have gone to the Caribbean to live a worry-free life, she said.
Khatallah doesn’t deny being at the compound, but says he went out of curiosity and helped direct traffic. Days after his capture, he told an FBI agent during an interrogation that he was on the grounds after midnight, after American staff had evacuated to the CIA annex.
Peterson showed the jurors surveillance video indicating that 30 minutes of footage from that night – which would corroborate his statement – is missing. But prosecutors DiLorenzo and Himelstein insisted that Khatallah was at the compound during the attack as their witnesses testified.
The government contends Khatallah is the commander of Ubaydah bin Jarrah, a militia that sought to establish Islamic law in post-revolution Libya. In 2011, the government says the group merged with Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist group that emerged during the Libyan civil war.
According to the Stanford University’s mapping militant organizations project, Ansar al-Shariah is a Salafi-Jihadist militant organization that emerged in Tunisia to establish Islamic law and uses community service, proselytization and violence to achieve its goals. It has an unaffiliated splinter group in Libya that shares operational, financial and logistical links.
DiLorenzo argued Khatallah was incensed by the presence of the U.S. diplomatic compound and CIA annex, which he thought were spy bases, and tried to incite local militia leaders to attack the facilities.
Peterson countered: “Saying that you don’t believe the U.S. should be spying in your country is not that controversial.”
Khatallah was unaware of the U.S. diplomatic presence in Benghazi, Peterson added.
“You can’t plan to attack something you don’t know exists.”
Defense witness Ahmed Salim, who lives just a few miles from the compound, testified earlier this week that he too was unaware of the compound.
According to Peterson, Khatallah showed up near the compound the night of the attacks wearing casual clothes and slippers on his feet, hardly the attire for carrying out a terror attack.
Addressing Khatallah’s support for Islamic law, Peterson said such a stance is hardly fanatical in the Muslim world.
“Wanting Sharia [Islamic] law does not equate to hating America,” Peterson said. “It’s not a reason to convict him.”
U.S. commandos captured Khatallah in June 2014 after prosecution witness Majrisi – in coordination with a year-long effort by U.S. officials – gained Khatallah’s trust, eventually luring him into a trap at a beach house.
During a three-week journey to the U.S. on board a Navy ship, Khatallah was interrogated by an intelligence team, and later FBI agents, without an attorney present.
Khatallah’s attorneys tried to suppress the statements he made on the U.S. Navy ship, but U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper, who is presiding over the case, ruled that the suspect had voluntarily waived his Miranda rights, which were read to him for the first time six days after his capture.
When FBI agents asked Khatallah during that time how he felt about the deaths of the Americans, the suspect allegedly told FBI agents that it was like watching something on TV. When asked again, he added he didn’t regret their deaths.
During her closing arguments, Peterson said it’s unfair to imbue those words with hatred of America. Khatallah, she noted, had been badly beaten during his capture, as photographs shown during the course of the trial revealed.
U.S. commandos “clunked” her client over the head and abducted him, Peterson said, and then hoisted him like a slab of meat onto a Navy ship to transport him to the U.S.
The interrogations of Khatallah aboard the ship were not recorded, but were written by an FBI agent after the fact to the best of his recollection, Peterson said to the jurors.
“We don’t know what was said,” she said.
Khatallah has pleaded not guilty to 18 counts, including conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists resulting in death, and aiding and abetting the murder of an ambassador and American employees.
The 46-year-old appeared in court Thursday with a chest-length salt-and-pepper beard and slightly disheveled hair, wearing a light-blue, long-sleeve top. He listened to an Arabic translation of the proceedings through headphones.
During rebuttal arguments, prosecutor Himelstein spoke with a quivering voice of her love for America, and insisted that Khatallah is guilty of orchestrating the attacks and the deaths of the four Americans.
She approached him at the table where he sat with his defense team and yelled: “How dare you!”
“The defendant is guilty as sin,” she said. “And he is a stone-cold terrorist.”
The jury will begin deliberations on Monday.