Mystery deepens about US enemy No. 1 in Libya

Press reports said Libyan officials identified Ahmed Abu Khattalah as the leader of the assault on the US consulate in Benghazi.

Anonymous Libyan authorities have identified the name of a man they say organized the attack on the US consulate, according to multiple press accounts.

Citing unnamed Libyan sources, The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets reported that Ahmed Abu Khattalah was identified by several Libyan witnesses as being present, and apparently in charge, during the attack on Sept. 11, which killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. (Reuters interviewed Abu Khattalah, who denied organizing the attack. US officials told Reuters that he is under investigation.)

But people with close knowledge of the Islamists networks in Libya express surprise that those same officials are calling Abu Khatalla “the founder and a leader” of Ansar al-Sharia, a militant Islamist group that has also been linked to the consulate attack.

“It is 100 percent not true that Ahmed Abu Khatallah is the founder of Ansar al-Shariah,” says Jahiyah Kuwafi, a member of the Justice and Construction Party, the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, who has been in close contact with the leadership of Ansar al-Shariah in recent weeks. 

Ahmed El-Gasir, a Libyan political activist, also cast doubt on the link. 

“I don’t think Abu Khatallah was a commander, or founder of Ansar al-Sharia,” says Mr. El-Gasir. “He belongs to the takfiri movement, which is driven by hate. They see the society as enemies. It would not enter their minds to do good for the society, as Ansar al-Sharia has done by providing security at a Benghazi hospital, for instance.”

Ahmed Abu Khatallah’s name first came up after the assassination of Abdul Fatah Younes, a prominent member of the Qaddafi regime until he defected to the rebellion and became their army chief of staff on Feb. 22, 2011. He was assassinated on July 28 under mysterious circumstances.

Mr. Younes had been placed under arrest on suspicion of treason, and was being brought back to Benghazi from the frontline in Brega when he was killed. A unit under control of Abu Khatallah was responsible for his transport, and was accused of killing him.

At the time it was suspected that former inmates of Qaddafi's infamous Abu Salim prison in Benghazi, of which Abu Khatallah was one, had taken revenge against Younes for his role in the persecution of suspected Islamic radicals under the Qaddafi regime. 

Mr. Kuwafi situates Abu Khatallah somewhere to the right of Osama Bin Laden.

“Bin Laden called the West infidels, but Abu Khatallah calls everybody who cooperates with the institutions of the new Libya infidels. I have tried to approach him but he was a tough nut to crack.”

Denying the link between Abu Khatallah and Ansar al Sharia does not let Ansar al Sharia off the hook, says El-Gasir.

“Ansar Al-Shariah, or at least members of it, were on the scene; their cars were identified. Their spokesman has denied that it was involved 'as a group,' which was to me an implicit admission that members were involved. This was later verified by eyewitnesses," he says. 

The identification of Ahmed Abu Khatallah comes amidst rumors of an imminent US drone attack on Islamic militants in Libya. Local security forces in the Green Mountains, between al-Bayda and Derna, have reportedly cornered a group of militants after they attacked a checkpoint in Soussa, killing four policemen.

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