Libyan Militia Leader to Be Sentenced in 2012 Benghazi Attacks That Killed U.S. Ambassador
By Spencer S. Hsu
The Washington Post
A Libyan militia leader convicted in the deadly 2012 Benghazi attacks that killed a U.S. ambassador faces sentencing Wednesday in the District of Columbia, with prosecutors urging life in prison and defense lawyers seeking 15 years or less.
A federal jury in November acquitted Ahmed Abu Khattala, 46, of murder and attempted murder in the overnight attacks that began Sept. 11, 2012, on a U.S. diplomatic mission and nearby CIA post.
But he was convicted on charges including conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists, and it is the extent of his role as ringleader that U.S. District Judge Christopher R. “Casey” Cooper will weigh in sentencing him.
Legal analysts looked to Abu Khattala’s sentencing and whether the government can effectively incapacitate him as likely to influence decisions whether to use civilian courts for similar prosecutions in the future.
Federal prosecutors said Khattala helped mastermind a terrorist strike abroad that resulted in the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, and that he deserved the maximum punishment.
“This fact alone, the first killing of a U.S. Ambassador while in the performance of his duties in nearly 40 years, makes this case a truly singular event and warrants imposition of the maximum sentence permissible under the law,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael C. DiLorenzo wrote in a sentencing recommendation by prosecutors.
The attacks also killed State Department employee Sean Smith — who died with Stevens in a fire at a U.S. mission residence — and CIA contractors Tyrone S. Woods and Glen Doherty who died in a mortar attack as the rampage shifted to a CIA annex in Benghazi.
Abu Khattala’s defense said jurors found him not guilty of the murders of Stevens and Smith, and argued that they concluded he joined the conspiracy at the mission after it already was on fire and overrun. The jury explicitly found, the defense wrote, “that the conduct for which it did convict did not result in death.”
They noted that jurors also acquitted Abu Khattala of all charges in the related attack hours later on the nearby CIA annex.
“The Court should respect the jury’s verdict . . . to impose a sentence that is not based on acquitted conduct or allegations not supported by the verdict,” wrote Jeffrey D. Robinson for attorneys with Federal Defender of the District A.J. Kramer and the law firm Lewis Baach Kaufmann Middlemiss.
The case was seen as a test of detention and interrogation policies developed under the Obama administration to capture terrorism suspects overseas for criminal trial.
Abu Khattala was the first person convicted in the attacks. The Trump administration ordered the Oct. 29 capture of a second suspect, Mustafa al-Imam, who was brought to Washington and pleaded not guilty. But the mixed Abu Khattala verdict showed the challenge of investigating and prosecuting such cases.
Abu Khattala was a leader of an extremist militia that sought to establish strict Islamist rule in Libya and oust the U.S. intelligence presence in Benghazi after Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown. U.S. intelligence assessments have reported several groups were involved in the attacks, including Abu Khattala’s brigade.
Prosecutors presented what they called “indisputable” records linking the times of calls on Abu Khattala’s cellphone — but not call contents — to surveillance video taken at the diplomatic mission that they argued showed he was at least a key plotter with several attack participants in the minutes before, during and after the assault.
At trial, Abu Khattala’s attorneys said he was drawn to the scene as a bystander, argued that others were responsible, and questioned the credibility of three key Libyan witnesses who testified that they witnessed him plan, execute and claim responsibility for the attacks.
In a pre-sentence opinion, Cooper acknowledged the defense argument that the jury did not find that evidence at trial showed beyond a reasonable doubt that Abu Khattala directly had a hand in the deaths, partly because he showed up on video entering the mission after the attack was mostly over.
But Cooper said it was likelier that the jurors found in their deliberations that Abu Khattala helped plan the assault but that they stopped just short of finding that one of his men set the fatal fire — a finding that would not rule out Abu Khattala as a leader.
Judges at sentencing can consider whether evidence showed it is more likely than not that a defendant committed certain acts and factor in such “relevant conduct” in setting punishment.
Cooper wrote that the practice may be “controversial” but has repeatedly been found to be constitutional.
Abu Khattala “did not himself set the fires at the Mission that killed Ambassador Stevens and Sean Patrick Smith, but . . . it is more likely than not that he agreed with several other participants to launch an armed attack on the Mission, and the attack foreseeably resulted in deaths that furthered the ends of the conspiracy,” Cooper wrote.
Abu Khattala’s trial shifted the Benghazi inquiry away from partisan politics, where Republicans and conservative groups used it throughout the 2016 presidential election to attack Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the attacks.
In an email to CIA employees after Abu Khattala was convicted, the agency’s director, Mike Pompeo, now President Trump’s secretary of state, called the conviction “a small measure of justice.”
“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. [Abu Khattala’s] sentencing is to follow; but no term in prison will bring our people back.”