The weekend apprehension by a Special Operations-FBI team of a suspected mastermind of the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack will very likely dent criticism of President Obama’s handling of the attack and its aftermath – but it won’t end it.
The Pentagon announced Tuesday that the US captured Ahmed Abu Khattala, suspected of organizing the Sept. 11, 2012 attacks on diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, in a secret operation Sunday. The Benghazi attack left four Americans dead, including the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and has remained a rallying cry of Republican critics who charge the president with weak responses to threats from Islamist terrorism.
Among the harshest criticism was that the Obama administration had fallen short on its pledge to bring the Benghazi perpetrators to justice – so it was no surprise when the White House called Mr. Abu Khattala’s capture “a major milestone.”
The US considers Abu Khattala a leader of the eastern Libyan Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, which it believes played a key role in the Benghazi attacks that also killed a US diplomat, Sean Smith, and two CIA contractors, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods. The State Department placed both Abu Khattala and Ansar al-Sharia on the US terrorism list in January.
In a statement, Mr. Obama said the arrest of Abu Khattala reflected the “priority” he has placed on efforts “to find and bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of four brave Americans.” He said that as a result of the operation, which Obama authorized on Friday, “the United States has once again demonstrated that we will do whatever it takes to see that justice is done when people harm Americans.”
Those words seemed chosen to echo Obama’s Rose Garden statement the morning after the Benghazi attacks, when he vowed that the US “will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act,” before adding, “And make no mistake, justice will be done.”
Indeed, at an event Tuesday afternoon in Pittsburgh, Obama referenced his Rose Garden comments, saying that as he had said nearly two years ago, “It’s important for us to send a message to the world” and to those who would harm Americans that “regardless of how long it takes, we will find you.”
But in the months following the attacks, the administration faced criticism and even ridicule for failing to make any arrests for Benghazi –especially when a number of print and broadcast journalists managed to interview Abu Khattala on the streets of Benghazi, where he appeared to be living openly and without fear of arrest.
In some interviews he even taunted the US, saying he had nothing to hide and that US officials who made the effort could come speak with him just as journalists were doing.
Abu Khattala’s capture could soften some of the public criticism of the administration’s handling of Benghazi, some foreign policy analysts say, but it will probably do little to quiet Republican critics – many of whom have focused on what they say were the lax security conditions that put the US personnel in Benghazi at risk.
“I think this [capture] is symbolically very important, because it says that even if we didn’t handle Benghazi right, we did get the guy who caused it,” says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
“Will it take away from the criticisms in Washington or dampen the efforts of this [congressional] select committee on Benghazi? No,” Mr. Korb says. “But I think for the American people this will provide some reassurance that we are pursuing the bad guys who would carry out attacks on us like in Benghazi, and so we can move on.”
The House voted in May to set up a select committee to investigate further the circumstances of the Benghazi attack and the decision-making on security conditions at the lightly guarded diplomatic facilities.
In a CNN poll released this month, 6 of 10 Americans said they were dissatisfied with the administration’s response to the Benghazi attack. The poll also found a closer divide on Americans’ opinion of the congressional probing of Benghazi, with 48 percent saying the continuing focus on the attacks is appropriate while 48 percent say the Republicans have gone too far.
With Abu Khattala in US hands and headed to Washington where he will face charges in criminal court, Republican critics appear to have shifted, at least temporarily, to doubts that the Obama administration will elicit from Abu Khattala the information that the military and intelligence could have obtained had he been sent to the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In a statement on Abu Khattala’s apprehension, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire praised the military and FBI personnel who nabbed Abu Khattala but sought to cast doubt on the administration’s firmness with terrorists.
“Rather than rushing to read him his Miranda rights and telling him he has the right to remain silent, I hope the administration will focus on collecting the intelligence necessary to prevent future attacks and to find other terrorists responsible for the Benghazi attacks,” Senator Ayotte said.
Shortly after news broke of Abu Khattala’s capture, federal officials in Washington unsealed a criminal complaint that had been filed in US District Court in Washington charging him with terrorism, murder, and conspiracy to commit these crimes.
If found guilty of the crimes, Abu Khattala could face sentences that include the death penalty.