By Joseph Tanfani
The terrorism case against a Libyan militia leader accused of plotting the deadly Benghazi attacks concluded in a federal courtroom Thursday, with prosecutors depicting him as a “stone-cold terrorist” driven by a rage against Americans.
Ahmed Abu Khatallah was captured by a military team in 2014, interrogated at sea and brought to the U.S. to face trial on 18 counts, including murder and providing aid to terrorists.
The fiery attacks in the Libyan city on Sept. 11, 2012, killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, and spurred years of inquiries and attacks by Republicans aimed at then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“The defendant is guilty as sin. He is a stone-cold terrorist,” said Julieanne Himelstein, a federal prosecutor.
In an emotional closing argument, she said Stevens and the other victims were “American sons” who were targeted by extremists in the chaos that swept Libya after the overthrow of longtime ruler Moammar Kadafi.
“How dare you?” she said to Abu Khatallah, adding that his goal was to erase U.S. bases that he thought were being used to spy on Libyans. “That’s what he wanted, and he succeeded,” she said.
His defense lawyers described Abu Khatallah as more of a bystander than the commander of the operation, saying he never participated in the attacks and arrived at the compound long after the assault was over.
“This whole thing doesn’t make a lot of sense,” attorney Michelle Peterson said of one witness account.
A key witness for the government, testifying under the pseudonym Ali Majrisi, won Abu Khatallah’s confidence and led the U.S. to his seafront villa in Benghazi. He was paid $7 million.
“Boy, did he get paid well,” Peterson said, describing him as “the $7-million man” and saying he was motivated to lie.
The eight-week trial featured surveillance videos showing militants setting fires and stealing documents, and graphic accounts of mortar attacks on a U.S. diplomatic mission and a nearby annex that was used by the CIA. Also killed were Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, former Navy SEALS working as CIA contractors, and the diplomatic mission’s information officer, Sean Smith.
But Abu Khatallah only shows up in the videos later, and Peterson said the government didn’t really have a clear idea who Abu Khatallah was. She asserted that he was the victim of “mistaken identity.”
Defense lawyers also argued that Abu Khatallah was improperly deprived of sleep during his nearly two weeks of interrogation on board the ship to the U.S.
While the trial was underway, the U.S. seized a second man in Libya and charged him with participating in the attack. Mustafa al-Imam, captured on Oct. 29, will be tried in Washington on a charge of one count of conspiracy to support terrorists.
The Abu Khatallah jury will begin deliberations on Monday.
Joseph Tanfani – Contact Reporter covers the Justice Department and Homeland Security in in the Washington, D.C., bureau. Before joining The Times in 2012, he worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he was a reporter and investigations editor, and at the Miami Herald, the Press of Atlantic City and the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.