WASHINGTON -- Special operations forces grabbed the suspected ringleader of the 2012 attacks in Libya that killed an American ambassador and spirited him to a U.S. warship where he faced questioning Tuesday about other possible plots against U.S. targets.
U.S. officials said Ahmed Abu Khattala, who was described as an "active threat," was aboard the USS New York, an amphibious transport ship in the Mediterranean Sea, en route to Washington to face criminal charges in a civilian court. He could face the death penalty if convicted.
Abu Khattala was snatched Sunday afternoon off a street near the city of Benghazi by elite U.S. troops, working with the FBI, in a commando raid that U.S. officials said had been planned long ago, lasted only minutes and went like clockwork. No shots were fired, and no one was injured.
"It went very, very well, without any hitches," said a senior U.S. military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing the classified operation. The official said a special operations team had been on standby for months "and the opportunity presented itself."
Abu Khattala, who is believed to be in his 40s, lived openly in Libya after the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi and gave media interviews as recently as six months ago. The State Department designated him a terrorist in January, describing him as a leader of Ansar al-Sharia, a Libyan militant group loosely affiliated with al-Qaida.
Relief for White House
His capture provided at least a temporary measure of relief for the White House and its political allies, who have struggled to find good news on the foreign policy front.
President Barack Obama hailed the counterterrorism operation, saying it should send a "message to the world" about American resolve after a terrorist attack.
"No matter how long it takes," Obama told a cheering crowd at a manufacturing workshop in Pittsburgh, "we will find those responsible and we will bring them to justice."
"With this operation, the United States has once again demonstrated that we will do whatever it takes to see that justice is done when people harm Americans," he said. "We will continue our efforts to bring to justice those who were responsible for the Benghazi attacks."
The White House has faced unrelenting criticism from Republicans since the attacks in Benghazi for failing to arrest any of the perpetrators and for inadequate security at the U.S. diplomatic compound and a CIA base that were overrun. The issue is likely to reverberate through this year's midterm elections.
Abu Khattala probably will make his first court appearance next week, according to a federal official who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing the ongoing investigation. An affidavit outlining the case against Abu Khattala will remain under seal until he is presented in court.
The official said Abu Khattala was read his Miranda rights against self-incrimination shortly after his capture. But U.S. authorities first invoked a public safety exemption that allows them to question him about other potential terrorism threats, a legal provision used in several previous high-profile terrorism cases.
A one-page criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia charged Abu Khattala, who also is known as Ahmed Mukatalah, on three federal counts. They include killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility, providing or attempting to provide material support to terrorists resulting in death and using a firearm during a crime of violence. He could face the death penalty if convicted of the first charge.
Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said Abu Khattala could face additional federal charges.
"Even as we begin the process of putting Khattala on trial and seeking his conviction before a jury, our investigation will remain ongoing as we work to identify and arrest any co-conspirators," Holder said.
U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, a former Piedmont resident and UC Berkeley graduate; and Sean Smith, a communications specialist, were killed when more than 60 armed men overwhelmed a small group of unarmed Libyan guards and stormed the diplomatic compound, setting fire to the buildings and engaging in running gunbattles with diplomatic security agents.
Early the next morning, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed by a mortar attack on a CIA base about a mile away. They were former Navy SEALS who were working for the CIA.
Republicans largely applauded the raid, although several demanded that Abu Khattala be moved to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, rather than to a civilian court.
Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, dismissed that possibility. Hayden noted that Obama has not sent any prisoner to Guantanamo Bay since he took office and has had "substantial success delivering swift justice to terrorists through our federal court system."
"I'm encouraged we finally got some good news on Benghazi," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Backing for raid
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, who chairs the Intelligence Committee and was highly critical of the White House for failing to inform Congress about the May prisoner swap, applauded the raid in Libya.
"The United States and Libya are both safer now that Abu Khattala is off the streets," she said.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said the capture was a unilateral American operation.
A senior official said that, fearing leaks, the U.S. did not the inform Libyan officials in Tripoli, the capital, until after Abu Khattala was captured and out of the country. The Libyan government exercises little control in Benghazi.
Pentagon officials refused to provide many details about the operation, in part because there are other suspects in the Benghazi attack whom they may also seek to capture.