By Fred Burton
Almost five years after attackers overran the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in an assault that left two diplomats and two security agents dead, not one person who participated in the crime has faced justice.
This, despite the fact that the U.S. intelligence community almost immediately fingered several members of the Ansar al-Sharia militia responsible for that night of chaos and death.
As I chronicled in my book Under Fire: The Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi, despite their heroic efforts, Diplomatic Security Service special agents and CIA personnel could not fend off an Islamist militia armed with assault weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. The terrorists set fire to the U.S. Consulate in the seaside city on Sept. 11, 2012, causing the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and another diplomat. Two CIA personnel died in a separate assault on the nearby CIA annex.
For months afterward, Washington was consumed with finger-pointing and political hand-wringing over who was to blame for the security lapses that had led to the first death of a U.S. ambassador in the line of duty since the suspicious 1988 plane crash that killed Arnold Raphel in Pakistan, a case I worked on and chronicled in my book Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent.
The nasty political display that followed Stevens’ murder, replete with investigations by Congress, the State Department and accountability review boards dragged on — as did the follow-up witch hunts.
Through all the turmoil that roiled the nation, one aspect of the attack continued to haunt both myself, and many of my current and former special agent colleagues: Why had no effort been made to bring the terrorists responsible to justice?
Shortly after the attack, I picked up information through my network that the intelligence community had identified many of the people responsible for the murders.
Most were still in Benghazi and could have been apprehended. If that was true, why was no immediate action taken? I suspect politics drove the White House’s inaction.
At times in this business, it’s easier to make no decision, which in itself, is a decision. The lack of timely action though, may have been a shortsighted decision, enabling the those responsible to crawl back under their rocks.
Then in June 2014, almost two years after the attack, U.S. special operations forces captured a suspect, Ahmed Abu Khattala, and spirited him away to a U.S. Navy vessel for 13 days of interrogation without a lawyer present.
I suspect that politics also drove the decision to put at least one head on a platter. For me, that’s not enough.
Almost three years later, Abu Khattala finally appeared in U.S. federal court for a hearing in advance of his trial, scheduled for September.
As The Washington Post reports, Abu Khattala’s defense lawyers said that after his capture, he “was taken from Libya ‘shackled, hooded, gagged and deafened’ with sound-eliminating headphones to maximize his disorientation, styled after terrorism detainees at the U.S. military site at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.”
Having lived in the counterterrorism world for many years and been involved in similar cases in the past, it is hard for me to have much sympathy for how Abu Khattala was captured, rendered or treated.
Several questions and issues persist surrounding Benghazi in the eyes of this former terrorist hunter. Why was Abu Khattala the only one captured for the murders, when others named in sealed indictments remain on the loose?
If others were under watch shortly after the attack, why was no “go” order given? Which National Security Council members decided to not arrest the others? What steps are being taken to hunt down the remaining attackers?
Some have said that, like vengeance, justice is a dish best served cold. Let’s be frank, it’s far easier to kill the bad guys, than to capture them. If I were back in the saddle in Washington, D.C., I know what I would do.
The terrorists responsible for murders in Benghazi would be hunted down, just as Mossad agents went after the Black September operatives responsible for the Munich Olympics massacre in 1972. You can take that to the bank.
Given the fractured state of the Libyan government, where no authority seems to be truly in charge, the United States should go it alone if need be to hunt down these killers. Justice must be served.
Fred Burton – Chief Security Officer, Stratfor