WASHINGTON (CN) – Witnesses began painting a picture Wednesday of what transpired during the capture of the suspected mastermind of the deadly attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, contradicting assertions he was mistreated during and after his arrest.
In the dark of night early on June 16, 2014, a man who identified himself only as FBI Special Agent Johnson recalled arriving to a one-bedroom villa off the coast south of Benghazi with seven U.S. commandos.
The only FBI agent present, Johnson wore jeans, a soccer jersey and a track suit jacket, he said.
Johnson and his team waited in the dark for suspected Libyan militia leader Ahmed Abu Khatallah to arrive, along with a comrade whom Johnson said during testimony had lured Khatallah there for capture.
Johnson waited in a bedroom while three commandos threw Khatallah to the ground, after which a 3- to 4-minute struggle ensued. Johnson described Khatallah as “very stout” and a “well-built man,” recalling that he kicked and flailed violently on the ground.
When Johnson emerged from the bedroom he held Khatallah’s legs down while another commando removed a pistol in a hip holster. Once they handcuffed him, Johnson said he took Khatallah into the bathroom with an Arabic translator.
There, Johnson recalls identifying himself as an American and telling Khatallah he would be taken to the United States.
Johnson later revealed during questioning from Khatallah’s attorney Jeffrey Robinson, however, that he did not include those details in his FBI report on the capture.
That could become important as U.S. District Judge Christopher R. Cooper weighs whether to suppress statements Khatallah made to FBI agents during the 13 days he spent aboard a Navy ship en route from Benghazi to the U.S.
Khatallah, 46, claims the statements were coerced and that he repeatedly asked for an attorney to be present during interrogations, but never got one.
Cooper will have to decide if the statements he made were involuntary and therefore inadmissible in court.
While questioning Johnson, Robinson recounted the experience from Khatallah’s perspective: strangers grabbed him in the dark and assaulted him. Wouldn’t you react violently under these circumstances, Robinson asked Johnson.
“I think so,” Johnson replied, preferring instead to describe Khatallah as having been apprehended and not assaulted.
But Johnson, along with FBI Special Agent Robert Daniel Story – who received Khatallah on the USS New York – testified that Khatallah was treated well.
The prosecution showed pictures of the “pod” where Khatallah slept. It showed a futon-style bed on the floor with a box next to it, a prayer rug and Quran resting on top. Story testified they did this out of respect: Because the Quran is sacred to Muslims, it cannot touch the floor.
Photos also revealed the word “qibla” written in Arabic on the pod wall, showing Khatallah the direction to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Muslims must face Mecca when they pray five times a day.
Later, military doctor Brad Smith testified that he examined Khatallah 25 times and administered medical treatment for injuries sustained during his capture.
But Khatallah’s defense attorneys painted a darker picture of what he went through.
Once subdued, the capture team placed a face mask and sound-muffling headphones on Khatallah, gagged him and guided him 500 meters from the villa to a boat. Several hours later, a cargo hoist heaved him aboard the USS New York.
Pictures taken in the hours after his capture show Khatallah had bruising and swelling around his left eye, a laceration on the right side of his forehead and other abrasions on his body.
The T-shirt he wore during his capture was dirty, ripped and covered in blood, a photograph shown in court revealed.
According to a brief filed May 3 by Khatallah’s defense team, the lights in his tiny pod stayed on 24 hours a day and Khatallah did not know where he was or where he was going. His interrogations were not recorded in any form, despite a May 2014 Justice Department policy stipulating that in-custody interrogations should be electronically recorded.
Khatallah’s defense attorneys argue the government could have flown him to the United States – they had planned the raid for more than a year – but deliberately brought him by ship to permit extensive interrogation.
“The omission of a lawyer from the ship’s complement was deliberate and intended to create a fait accompli that would increase the likelihood that he would talk,” the May 3 document states.
His attorneys say the two different teams that questioned Khatallah after abducting him left him insufficiently informed to waive his Miranda rights. An intelligence-gathering unit not subject to constitutional safeguards interrogated him first for four days, followed by an FBI unit or “clean team” that eventually did read him his Miranda rights.
When informed he could have a lawyer but that none was available, Khatallah agreed to proceed but made clear he wanted a lawyer as soon as possible, the court document states.
“His repeated reference to the lack of an available lawyer each time he was questioned clearly demonstrates that he wanted a lawyer,” the document says.
Khatallah has a ninth-grade education, does not speak English and did not have a sophisticated understanding of American civil liberties protections at the time, his defense team says.
“In light of the totality of circumstances, telling him he had the right to a lawyer, but that he could not avail himself of that right, rendered the right meaningless,” the document continues.
Prosecutors, however, say Khatallah was fully informed when he signed away his right not to make statements to interrogators, which led to his indictment on 18 counts – including murder – for the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks that left U.S. Ambassador Christopher J. Stevens and three other Americans dead.
He did that voluntarily and was not subjected to any coercive tactics, Justice Department prosecutors say.
Johnson and Story, along with Dr. Smith, testified that Khatallah seemed to understand their English communications with him, all of which were translated into Arabic.
His defense team claims, however, that the translator did not speak Khatallah’s dialect of Arabic.
Khatallah pleaded not guilty to the charges on June 28, 2014, and has repeatedly denied involvement in the U.S. consulate attack, though he has acknowledged leading an anti-Western militia. The government claims Khatallah belongs to the Ansar al-Shariah militia group, which emerged in 2011 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 combines community service, proselytization and violence, which seeks to establish Sharia law in Tunisia. It has an unaffiliated splinter group in Libya that shares operational, financial and logistical links.
The defense motion says Khatallah “spent a major portion of his adulthood in Muammar Qaddafi’s torture prisons.”
Khatallah appeared in court with a chest-length salt-and-pepper beard, disheveled hair and wearing a dark green prison jump suit from the Alexandria, Virginia, city jail where he is being detained.
After U.S. Marshals escorted him into the courtroom, Khatallah smiled warmly and shook hands with one of his attorneys, Eric Leslie Lewis. He listened to translated proceedings through a pair of headphones while slightly slumped in a chair.
More witness testimony is expected this week from other U.S. officials directly involved in Khatallah’s capture. His trial is scheduled to start Sept. 25.