Accused mastermind of 2012 Benghazi attacks is convicted of terrorism but acquitted of murder of four Americans

With the conviction, former Libya militia leader Ahmed Abu Khatallah faces the possibility of life in prison.
With the conviction, former Libya militia leader Ahmed Abu Khatallah faces the possibility of life in prison.
(Associated Press)

The accused ringleader of the Benghazi attacks was convicted Tuesday of terrorism-related charges but found not guilty of multiple counts of murder in armed attacks that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, in September 2012.

Despite being acquitted on the most serious charges, Ahmed Abu Khatallah still faces a potential sentence of life in prison for his role in the coordinated assaults on a U.S. diplomatic mission and nearby CIA outpost in the Libyan city, violence that became a political flashpoint in the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House.

The mixed verdict, after five days of jury deliberations following a seven-week trial, marks a partial success for U.S. efforts to prosecute foreign terrorists in civilian courts, but a disappointment for those seeking greater clarity and accountability for the deadly Benghazi attacks.

Abu Khatallah, a former Libyan militia leader who wore a wrinkled white shirt and chest-length gray beard to court, stood and listened to the verdict through headphones. He showed no emotion as he was found guilty of four of 18 charges.


His defense lawyers declined to comment on the verdict. Last week, they moved for a mistrial, saying that closing arguments by government prosecutors were over the top and inflammatory. That motion is still pending.

Abu Khatallah was convicted of two counts of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, one count of maliciously destroying U.S. property, and one count of using a semiautomatic weapon during a crime of violence.

But he was acquitted of four counts of murder and all other charges, including attempted murder, in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

During the trial, federal prosecutors faced a challenge in trying to make the murder charges stick. They conceded from the outset that Abu Khatallah did not set the fires that killed Stevens and another U.S. diplomat, Sean Smith, and did not fire the mortars that killed two CIA contractors, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.

They argued that Abu Khatallah was responsible because he urged others to kill Americans and had helped plan the attacks. But his defense attorneys kept reminding jurors that he wasn’t present when the shooting began on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, and portrayed him as a political scapegoat for the U.S.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo hailed the verdict in a message to the CIA workforce. “Today, a small measure of justice was meted out,” he wrote. “It took intelligence to find him, soldiers to assist in capturing him, law enforcement to interview him, and a legal team to put him away.”

Republican critics long charged that Clinton, who was then Secretary of State, provided inadequate security for the Benghazi mission, ignored warnings of likely violence and failed to respond swiftly to the coordinated assault.

Multiple congressional and State Department investigations found the charges untrue, but Benghazi became a partisan rallying cry for Clinton’s opponents, including Donald Trump, before and during the 2016 presidential race.

During the trial in federal court in Washington, jurors saw gritty surveillance videos and listened to emotional witness accounts of how armed men suddenly stormed the lightly guarded U.S. compound in Libya’s second-largest city.

Videos showed militants kicking in a door and carrying gasoline later used to set the compound aflame. They also could be seen grabbing documents that prosecutors say were used to pinpoint the location of a secret CIA outpost about a mile away, which was attacked later that night.

Abu Khatallah, now 46, was a leader of the Ansar al Sharia militia, one of the local Islamist groups that fought to depose Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi in 2011. After the 2012 attacks, he kept a public profile in Benghazi, even giving interviews to visiting reporters.

During the trial, U.S. prosecutors described Abu Khatallah as an extremist who hated Americans and cited an array of circumstantial evidence to argue that he had masterminded the attacks.

They presented testimony from informants who said he had called for a strike on American spies in Benghazi. One witness said Abu Khatallah said he wanted to kill “all the Americans.”

The government’s star witness, a Libyan businessman who appeared in court using the fake name Ali Majrisi, was paid a $7-million reward after he lured Abu Khatallah to a seaside villa where U.S. commandos grabbed him in 2014 and put him on a ship.

The defense hammered at the credibility of the informants, saying they were motivated by a big payday to make up stories about Abu Khatallah.

After he was seized, Abu Khatallah was taken to a waiting U.S. warship and subjected to a two-stage interrogation that is now the government’s favored approach to handling terrorism suspects.

First questioned in secret by intelligence officers seeking details of active terrorist plots, Abu Khatallah was then read his Miranda rights and subjected to a second round of questioning by criminal investigators collecting evidence for trial.

While his trial was underway, U.S. forces in Libya captured another suspect in the Benghazi attack, Mustafa al Imam, and brought him back to the United States to face a charge of aiding terrorism.

The criminal prosecutions have proved far more efficient than the government’s first strategy against terrorism suspects — holding the defendants at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for trial by military commissions.

That process remains tangled in court challenges and delays, and some of the accused Sept. 11 terrorists still have not been brought to trial after more than 15 years in custody. Guantanamo now holds just 41 prisoners.

In contrast, federal courts have convicted more than 600 people of terrorism-related offenses since 2001, including 108 in which the defendant was captured abroad, according to Justice Department data.

“The conviction of Khatallah on multiple counts underscores the strength of our federal courts in handling complex terrorism cases,” said Matthew G. Olsen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, now at Human Rights First. “This shows that our criminal justice system is fair, independent, and tough when it comes to dealing with terrorists and that no one can escape justice if we put faith in our laws and institutions.”

Twitter: @jtanfani


4:00 p.m.: This story was updated with details on the verdict and from the courtroom.

This story was published at 1 p.m.