WASHINGTON (AP) — A court appearance for the alleged mastermind of the attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, is the first step in a long legal process that could yield new insight into a fiery assault that continues to reverberate across U.S. politics.
The case of Ahmed Abu Khattala, who pleaded not guilty during a brief court appearance Saturday, also represents a high-profile test of the Obama administration’s goal of prosecuting terror suspects in civilian courts — even in the face of Republican critics who say such defendants aren’t entitled to the protections of the American legal system.
Abu Khattala made his first appearance in an American courtroom amid tight security, two weeks after being captured in Libya by U.S. special forces in a nighttime raid and then whisked away on a Navy ship for questioning and transport.
A grand jury indictment made public Saturday accuses Abu Khattala of participating in a conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2012, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The Justice Department says it expects to bring more charges.
The Libyan who maintained a garrulous public persona at home — granting interviews with journalists and gaining popularity and prominence in Benghazi’s circle of extremists — showed little reaction during a 10-minute appearance before a federal magistrate judge. He spoke just two words, both in Arabic, in response to perfunctory questions, stared impassively for most of the hearing and sat with his hands behind his back.
As the Justice Department embarks on a high-profile prosecution of the alleged militant, the case is likely to provide a public forum for new details about a burst of violence — on the 11th anniversary of the attacks on the Sept. 11 attacks — that roiled the Middle East and dominated American political discourse. In the nearly two years since the attack, dozens of congressional briefings and hearings have been held and tens of thousands of pages of documents have been released. Yet there’s still a dispute over what happened.