By Phil Stewart and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States said on Tuesday it had captured a suspected ringleader of the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, a raid that killed four Americans including the U.S. ambassador and ignited a political firestorm in Washington.
President Barack Obama said in a statement that he had authorized the operation in Libya on Sunday in which U.S. military troops, working with law enforcement personnel, captured Ahmed Abu Khatallah.
“Since the deadly attacks on our facilities in Benghazi, I have made it a priority to find and bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of four brave Americans,” Obama said, adding that Khatallah would “face the full weight of the American justice system.”
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Khatallah was being held aboard an American ship after he was grabbed on the outskirts of Benghazi in an operation carried out by U.S. special operations forces.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said there were no civilian casualties in the operation and all U.S. personnel involved in the capture had safely left Libya. The Pentagon declined to discuss further details of the operation and it was not immediately clear whether there were non-civilian casualties.
A U.S. official said Khatallah would be charged and prosecuted through the U.S. court system and would not be sent to the prison for suspected al Qaeda militants in Guantanamo, Cuba.
That decision follows past practice and is in line with President Barack Obama’s policy of bringing suspected militants caught abroad through the U.S. justice system rather than trying them in the military tribunal system at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a prison he is trying to close.
After the 2012 attack, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, Republicans accused the Obama administration of playing down the role of al Qaeda in the attack for political reasons.
They also said then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had failed to take adequate steps to ensure the safety of American diplomatic personnel, an issue that is still resonating as Clinton considers running for U.S. president in 2016.
The Libyan government had no immediate comment on the U.S. announcement and it was unclear whether Washington had notified Libyan officials before carrying out the operation.
It was the second time U.S. special operations forces have gone into Libya to detain a militant. A U.S. Army Delta Force team grabbed al Qaeda suspect Nazih al-Ragye, better known as Abu Anas al-Liby, in Tripoli in October 2013 and sent him to a U.S. Navy ship for interrogation.
Al-Liby was later charged in a U.S. federal court in New York in connection with the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, which killed more than 200 people.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Julia Edwards; Writing by David Alexander; Editing by David Storey and James Dalgleish)