WASHINGTON — The Libyan militant accused of masterminding the deadly Benghazi attacks that have become a flashpoint in U.S. politics appeared briefly for the first time in an American courtroom Saturday, pleading not guilty to a terrorism-related charge nearly two weeks after he was captured by military special forces
In a 10-minute hearing held amid tight security, Ahmed Abu Khattala spoke just two words, both in Arabic. He replied “yes” when asked to swear to tell the truth and “no” when asked if he was having trouble understanding the proceeding.
Abu Khattala becomes the most recent foreign terror suspect to be prosecuted in American courts, a forum the Obama administration contends is both fairer and more efficient than the military tribunal process used at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The case is being tried in Washington despite concerns from Republicans in Congress who say he should not be entitled to the protections of the U.S. legal system.
A grand jury indictment handed up under seal Thursday and made public Saturday accuses Abu Khattala of participating in a conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2012, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
That crime is punishable by life in prison. The government said it soon would file more charges against Abu Khattala.
During his initial court appearance, the defendant listened via headphones to a translation of the proceedings. He wore a two-piece black track suit, had a beard and long curly hair, both mostly gray, and kept his hands, which were not handcuffed, behind his back.
He looked impassively at U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola for most of the hearing. Abu Khattala’s court-appointed lawyer, Michelle Peterson, entered the not guilty plea. Facciola ordered the defendant’s continued detention, but the judge did not say where Abu Khattala would be held.
The U.S. Marshals Service said it had taken custody of Abu Khattalah, who now was confined to a detention facility in the capital region, ending a harried day for the Libyan.
U.S. special forces captured Abu Khattala in Libya two weeks ago, marking the first breakthrough in the investigation. Officials had been since been questioning Abu Khattala aboard a Navy amphibious transport dock ship that transported him to the United States.
He was flown early Saturday by military helicopter from a Navy ship to a National Park Service landing pad in the city’s Anacostia neighborhood, according to a U.S. official.
A U.S. official said Abu Khattala had been advised of his Miranda rights at some point during his trip to the United States and continued talking after that. The official wasn’t authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation by name and spoke on condition of anonymity. The nature of those conversations wasn’t immediately clear.
A criminal complaint filed last year and unsealed after Abu Khattala’s capture charged him with terror-related crimes, including killing a person during an attack on a federal facility. A new, single-count indictment will likely be superseded by additional charges, prosecutors say.
The violence in Libya on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon quickly became a political controversy at home. Republicans accused the White House, as the 2012 presidential election neared, of intentionally misleading the public about what prompted the attacks by portraying it as one of the many protests over an anti-Muslim video made in America, instead of a calculated terrorist attack. The White House said Republicans were politicizing a national tragedy.
The U.S. government accuses Abu Khattala of being a member of the Ansar al-Shariah group, the powerful Islamic militia that officials believe was behind the attack.
A prominent figure in Benghazi’s circles of extremists, he was popular among young radicals and lived openly in the eastern Libyan city, where he would be spotted at cafes and other public places even after the Obama administration publicly named him as a suspect in the attacks.
He acknowledged in January that he was present during the storming of the U.S. mission in Benghazi. But he denied involvement in the attack, saying he was trying to organize a rescue of trapped people.
During the attack, gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades and stormed the mission, with many waving the black banners of Ansar al-Shariah. The compound’s main building was set ablaze. Stevens suffocated inside and another American was shot dead.
Later in the evening, gunmen attacked and shelled a safe house, killing two more Americans. At the time, several witnesses said they saw Abu Khattala directing fighters at the site.
No evidence has publicly emerged that Abu Khattala was involved in the later attack.
Abu Khattala is one of just a few cases in which the administration has captured a suspected terrorist overseas and interrogated him for intelligence purposes before bringing him to federal court to face charges.
A look at how the legal process may play out in the case against Ahmed Abu Khattala:
Q: What happened at that court hearing?
A: Abu Khattala pleaded not guilty during a 10-minute appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola. Wearing a two-piece black track suit and keeping his hands behind his back, the defendant wore headphones to listen to a translation of the proceedings. Abu Khattala spoke just two words during the hearing, both in Arabic. He replied “yes” when asked to swear to tell the truth and “no” when asked if he was having trouble understanding the proceeding. Facciola ordered the defendant’s continued detention.
Q: Who is representing Abu Khattala?
A: A lawyer from the federal public defender’s office appeared alongside Abu Khattala.
Q: What is the next step in the legal process?
A: Minutes after Abu Khattala entered his plea, the Justice Department unsealed a two-page grand jury indictment charging him with conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists resulting in death. Attorney General Eric Holder has said Abu Khattala could face additional charges and that federal authorities are working to identify, locate and prosecute additional co-conspirators. The case is in the hands of the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington and the Justice Department’s National Security Division.
Q: What has been the reaction to the criminal proceedings?
A: The Obama administration supports prosecuting Abu Khattala and other suspected terrorists in American courts, a judicial system that government officials believe is fairer and more efficient than the military tribunal process at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But some Republican critics are already raising concerns about the prosecution. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., issued a statement saying “critical intelligence” could be lost in the process of turning Abu Khattala over to the American justice system.