Just as the White House was hailing the successful capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala, the man suspected of directing attacks on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi that resulted in four deaths, Obama critics were simultaneously asking what took them so long to capture Abu Khattala and wondering whether the administration chose this moment to relieve the pressure on the president coming from the insurgency in Iraq.
It was a typical scene for the Obama administration—events that might have been greeted with applause in previous administrations are now received with skepticism and condemnation, such as the prisoner swap that brought home Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl several weeks ago.
When militants attacked the U.S. consulate with mortars and rockets two years ago, the building burned down, resulting in the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and IT expert Sean Smith from smoke inhalation. It has become a political nightmare both for Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who were accused of not providing enough security for the consulate and then trying to cover up the nature of the attack.
Abu Khattala was captured on the outskirts of Benghazi by about two dozen Delta Force commandos and two or three FBI agents, who descended on him just after midnight local time on Monday, with drones overhead sending images back to commanders, according to the New York Times.
With no shots fired, the suspect was grabbed and swiftly moved to a United States Navy warship in the Mediterranean, which is on a slow trip back to the U.S. while Abu Khattala is being interrogated likely by the FBI-led High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG, which includes agents from multiple law and intelligence agencies, according to CNN.
Libyan officials, displeased that the U.S. chose to carry out the operation without any forewarning, called the capture of Abu Khattala a “kidnapping” and said it was a violation of Libyan sovereignty.
Abu Khattala will likely have a federal trial, similar to those of such terror suspects as aspiring Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, the so-called underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri and al-Qaeda propagandist Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who were all convicted and sentenced in U.S. courts.
Abu Khattala will face three charges in federal court that include killing while attacking a federal facility, and conspiracy and material support of terrorism.
“We retain the option of adding additional charges in the coming days,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said.
After the Benghazi attack, Abu Khattala seemed to taunt the U.S., giving interviews with CNN and the New York Times while eluding capture and denying involvement in the deaths. Though he seemed to go underground in recent months, according to published reports, officials said new intelligence obtained last week showed that he was in an “advantageous” spot to be captured with much less risk.
“It’s important for us to send a message to the world that when Americans are attacked, no matter how long it takes, we will find those responsible and we will bring them to justice,” Obama said on Tuesday. “And that’s a message I sent the day after it happened, and regardless of how long it takes, we will find you.”
After the incident that killed Stevens and Smith, Abu Khattala reportedly led another attack in Benghazi that resulted in the deaths of two former U.S. Navy SEALs working as security contractors, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
“It’s about time,” Charles Woods, the father of Tyrone Woods, told the Times on Tuesday.
“We’ve been trying to be patient, and we’re very happy that this does seem part of the course of justice,” said Greg Doherty, Glen Doherty’s brother. “They assured us that this is not the end of their efforts, and they have a lot of good people working hard, and they haven’t forgotten us.
When asked what took so long to catch a suspect who had openly met with reporters, officials brushed off the criticism.
“The presumption in the question is that, you know, he was going to McDonald’s for milkshakes every Friday night, and we could have just picked him up in a taxicab,” said Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman. “I mean, these people deliberately tried to evade capture.”
But Fred Burton, vice president of intelligence with Stratfor, a commercial intelligence service, questioned whether the Obama administration chose this week for the raid to detract attention from other problems.
“All of these decisions are political,” Burton told the Boston Herald. “It is curious, the timing … I know the suspect was identified early after the attack and he certainly was accessible to a range of reporters from various international media outlets who interviewed him inside of Benghazi. At the end of the day, these decisions are signed off by the (National Security Council) and the White House. It’s really a question for them.”