WASHINGTON (CN) – During the sixth week of trial over the 2012 attacks in Benghazi that killed four Americans, the government called a key witness who earned more than $7 million for his cooperation in the capture of suspected mastermind Ahmed Abu Khattalah.
Appearing in court under the pseudonym Ali Majrisi for his family’s safety, the Libyan informant said he lured Khattalah to a beach house late on June 14, 2014, where U.S. forces were waiting.
“We were both arrested,” Majrisi testified on Monday through an Arabic translator. The 40-year-old said he was released immediately and fled to Tunisia after catching a few hours of sleep, traveling on to a third country. Khattalah, meanwhile, was captured and taken to a ship offshore to make a three-week trek to the U.S.
In surprising testimony Monday, Majrisi said that raid nearly didn’t happen because he had grown weary with the operation.
“It took too long,” he said. “And it wore me out and accompanying him put me under suspicion.”
The informant said he suggested killing Khattalah, and offered to do it himself.
When pressed by prosecutor John Crabb to explain why, the informant said: “So I can be at rest finally and my city would be at rest, because this person is a murderer.”
Khattalah, 46, has pleaded not guilty to 18 charges and is the only person so far to stand trial for the deadly attacks carried out overnight on Sept. 11 and 12, 2012, by militants who overran a U.S. diplomatic compound and later attacked a nearby CIA annex with mortars. The attacks killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
The capture of Khattalah was the culmination of more than a year and a half of planning, with Majrisi deeply involved, according to eight hours of testimony Monday and Tuesday.
U.S. government officials first approached the informant in late 2012 to assist with the investigation of the attacks. Majrisi said he balked at first, hesitant to get involved in the operation, but eventually agreed.
Explaining his motivations to a federal grand jury in Washington, he said: “I am against terrorism and against extremism,” adding that he also wanted to help the United States. “The United States did us a favor; it helped us through the revolution.”
The U.S. government contends that Ansar al-Sharia, a U.S.-designated terror group that wants to establish Islamic law in Libya, carried out the attacks on the diplomatic compound and CIA annex.
After U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper, who is presiding over the case, struck as hearsay Majrisi’s testimony that he heard Khattalah was the leader of Ubaydah Ibin al-Jarrah – a component of Ansar al-Sharia – the informant reworded his statement.
Majrisi said he had seen Khattalah interacting with members of the group, which he said had extremist ideologies, and which carried black flags that said the Islamic shahada, or proclamation of faith: “There is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet.”
Surveillance video played during the course of the trial shows several of the attackers carrying black flags.
The United States paid Majrisi for the duration of the operation to capture Khattalah, giving him monthly payments of $2,500 and later increasing that amount to $5,000. The government also gave him a reward of $7 million – paid in two installments – about eight or nine months after Khattalah was captured, he testified Tuesday.
The government has also covered the cost of his living expenses in the United States, including rent, and educational and health care costs for his family.
When asked by prosecutor Crabb, Majrisi said the money was not given in exchange for his testimony.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Michelle Peterson needled the informant about the payments he received from the government.
“It’s hard to keep track of all the money the United States government was paying you, wasn’t it,” Peterson asked him.
Visibly frustrated with Peterson’s insistence that he recall specific details, Majrisi had a difficult time recalling his prior testimony, and the exact dates of payments and meetings with the U.S. representatives he worked with during the course of the operation.
He did, however, call them “brothers” and said he “trusted them all.”
Peterson asked Majrisi if his American contact had told him the potential for a significant financial award from the government hinged on his agreement to testify against Khattalah.
“He did mention the reward, yes,” Majrisi said. “And he did mention the testimony. And I refused them in the beginning.”
Peterson asked the informant if he remembered telling the Americans he worked with that he had given Khattalah weapons at the request of the U.S. government.
“I don’t remember that,” he said. “Slip of the tongue, maybe.”
U.S. officials had asked Majrisi to give Khattalah two laptops, a car and money, but first the informant had to get to know Khattalah. Introduced by a third party, It took three to four months to get to know him, but he eventually revealed incriminating details about his involvement in the attacks as the two got better acquainted, Majrisi said.
On Monday, Majrisi testified Khattalah had once praised the commander of the 17th of February Brigade, Ahmed Shaltami, after hearing he had been nominated to serve as head of Libyan intelligence. Shaltami was responsible for overseeing forces that protected government installations and foreign missions, including the U.S. diplomatic compound.
Surveillance footage played during the course of the trial from the night of Sept. 11, 2012, shows security forces from the 17th of February Brigade fleeing from the compound minutes before the attack began.
According to Majrisi, Khattalah personally ordered Shaltami to evacuate the security forces.
Majrisi recalled Khattalah’s words: “He was one of the people whom I asked to withdraw from around the American mission. He was one of the first to respond and withdraw.”
The informant did not claim to have personally witnessed the deadly attacks, but offered other incriminating testimony.
On Tuesday, he identified Khattalah on surveillance video taken at the diplomatic compound on the night of the attacks after the U.S. staff had evacuated, along with about a dozen of Khattalah’s associates.
On a computer screen at the witness stand, Majrisi circled a blurry figure on the screen dressed in military fatigues who held a large weapon that the informant said was a Kalashnikov rifle. He also identified Mustafa al-Imam, who was captured by U.S. commandos in Libya last month.
Majrisi called al-Imam “one of the closest” people to Khattalah.
Al-Imam made his first appearance in federal court in Washington on Nov. 3, charged with killing someone with a firearm in an attack on a federal facility and providing material support to terrorists.
During cross-examination on Tuesday, attorney Peterson asked Majrisi if he had some special training on identifying faces on grainy video.
“People I have seen many times I can recognize easily, even if I met them once,” he responded. “I have a strong memory.”
During testimony Monday, Majrisi recalled another occasion in which Khattalah placed himself at the U.S. compound during the attack.
An associate of Khattalah, Rafat Budabus, had once encouraged Khattalah to do something more to show their strength, pointing to what al-Qaida’s leader in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had accomplished there.
Al-Zarqawi, who was killed in an American airstrike in June 2006, had advocated for the establishment of a caliphate in Iraq and led militant groups that carried out brutal sectarian attacks, including suicide bombings, beheadings and kidnappings.
According to Majrisi, Khattalah said he was skeptical that something similar was possible in Libya because of the interference of other groups. Khattalah said that someone named Wissam bin Hamid was at the compound the night of the attack and stopped part of it, Majrisi testified.
“I intended then to kill everybody there, even those who were at the airport,” he quoted Khattalah as saying. “If it was not for Wissam, who stopped me from doing so.”