Prosecutors and defense lawyers gave starkly different portrayals on Monday of Ahmed Abu Khattala, the alleged mastermind of the 2012 attacks on U.S. outposts in Benghazi, Libya, that killed ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
A government lawyer said that when Abu Khattala’s hatred of America boiled over, he orchestrated the attacks and then triumphantly strode around the attack site carrying an AK-47. Assistant U.S. attorney John Crabb said that later, the defendant was heard at his apartment saying: “I attacked the American embassy” and would have killed more Americans that night if others had not intervened.
A defense attorney, on the other hand, called Abu Khattala a “Libyan patriot,” who fought on America’s side in the war against Libyan leader Moammar Gadafi. He said Abu Khattala didn’t mastermind the attack. The lawyer said the defendant simply went to the attack site because he heard there was a protest and wanted to see what was happening.
“He didn’t shoot anyone. He didn’t set any fires. He did not participate in the attacks,” said Jeffrey Robinson, a lawyer for Abu Khattala.
Twelve jurors and three alternates listened as opening statements unfolded in one of the most significant terrorism prosecutions in recent years. The trial is being held in U.S. District Court in Washington – a civilian federal court – at a time when the Trump administration has said terror suspects are better sent to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Abu Khattala, sporting a long grayish-white beard, appeared in court wearing a white shirt and dark pants. He has pleaded not guilty to his charges, including murder of an internationally protected person, providing material support to terrorists and destroying U.S. property while causing death. When he entered the courtroom, he shook hands with members of his legal team. He monitored his trial with earphones offering him an Arabic interpreter. At times, he sipped water or swiveled in his chair at the defense table.
An 18-count indictment against Abu Khattala arises from a burst of violence that began the night of Sept. 11, 2012, at a State Department compound, a rampage prosecutors say was aimed at killing American personnel and plundering maps, documents and other property from the post.
Stevens was killed in the first attack at the U.S. mission, along with Sean Patrick Smith, a State Department information management officer. Nearly eight hours later at a CIA complex nearby, two more Americans, contract security officers Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, died in a mortar attack.
Stevens and Smith “choked to death by thick black smoke,” Crabb said. Woods and Doherty were “blown apart by mortar,” he said. He said Abu Khattala “hates America with a vengeance” and that his “hatred simmered until it boiled over.”
“He killed Ambassador Stevens – a man of peace.”
Crabb said the prosecution would show the jury videos of the attack site and Abu Khattala’s phone records, which he said showed a spike in activity during the attacks. He said witnesses would include weapons and fire experts and a man named Ali, who was paid $7 million to befriend Abu Khattala and help U.S. forces capture him in Libya.
After he was captured, he was taken to a U.S. Navy ship that transported him to the United States. During the 12-day journey, he was first interrogated by intelligence personnel and then by FBI agents. Crabb said Abu Khattala told FBI agents that America was the “root of all the world’s problems.”
Robinson said Abu Khattala cooperated aboard the ship and he “continued to deny, as he denies today, any participation in planning or masterminding the attack.” He alleged that the witness is one of Abu Khattala’s adversaries in Libya who would do anything to have him locked in prison.
Robinson also said Abu Khattala was a deeply religious man who believes in conservative sharia law as outlined in the Quran, but reminded jurors that in America, people are not prosecuted because of their religious beliefs.
The trial, which is expected to last for weeks, is likely to resurrect the political controversy over the attack. Republicans accused the Obama administration of intentionally misleading the public about what transpired at the U.S. outposts and stonewalling congressional investigators. Some lawmakers also criticized then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s handling of the matter.