Saturday court appearance for Benghazi suspect

Associated Press
FILE - This undated file image obtained from Facebook shows Ahmed Abu Khattala, an alleged leader of the deadly 2012 attacks on Americans in Benghazi, Libya, who was captured by U.S. special forces on Sunday, June 15, 2014, on the outskirts of Benghazi. Khattala, charged in the 2012 Benghazi attacks, is in U.S. custody amid tight security at the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Washington, Saturday, June 28, 2014. Khattala faces criminal charges in the deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans. (AP Photo, File)
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FILE - This undated file image obtained from Facebook shows Ahmed Abu Khattala, an alleged leader of …

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Libyan militant charged in the 2012 Benghazi attacks faces his first court appearance Saturday amid tight security at the federal courthouse in Washington, the U.S. attorney's office said.

Ahmed Abu Khattala faces criminal charges in the deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans from the attack on Sept. 11, 2012.

U.S. special forces captured Abu Khattala in Libya two weeks ago, marking the first breakthrough in the investigation of the Benghazi attacks. Officials had been questioning Abu Khattala aboard a Navy amphibious transport dock ship that transported him from to the United States.

Abu Khattala was flown by military helicopter from the ship to a National Park Service landing pad in the city's Anacostia neighborhood, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the transfer publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

A criminal complaint filed last year that was unsealed after his capture charges him with terror-related crimes, including killing a person during an attack on a federal facility, a crime that can be punishable by death.

In the initial court appearance, the government is expected to outline the charges against him. He almost certainly will remain in detention while the Justice Department sought a federal grand jury indictment against him.

The prosecution in a courthouse in the the U.S. capital reflects the Obama administration's stated position of trying suspected terrorists in the American criminal justice system even as Republicans call for Abu Khattala and others to be held at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Critics say suspected terrorists don't deserve the legal protections afforded by the American court. The Obama administration considers the civilian justice system fairer and more efficient.

The violence on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon quickly became a political flashpoint. Republicans accused the White House, as the 2012 presidential election neared, of intentionally misleading the public about what prompted the attacks. The White House, meanwhile, accused Republicans of politicizing a national tragedy.

Abu Khattala, a prominent figure in Benghazi's circles of extremists, was popular among young radicals and lived openly in the eastern Libyan city, spotted at cafes and other public places, even after the Obama administration publicly named him as a suspect. He is accused of being a member of the Ansar al-Shariah group, the powerful Islamic militia that the U.S. believes was behind the attack.

He acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press in January that he was present during the storming of the U.S. mission in Benghazi. But he denied involvement in the attack, saying he was trying to organize a rescue of trapped people.

In the attack, gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades and stormed the mission, with many waving the black banners of Ansar al-Shariah, a powerful Islamic militia.

The compound's main building was set ablaze. Ambassador Chris Stevens suffocated to death inside and another American was shot dead. Later in the evening, gunmen attacked and shelled a safe house, killing two more Americans.

At the time, several witnesses said they saw Abu Khattala directing fighters at the site.

No evidence has emerged that Abu Khattala was involved in the later attack on the safe house.

Abu Khattala is one of just a few cases in which the administration has captured a suspected terrorist overseas and interrogated him for intelligence purposes before bringing him to federal court to face charges.

Those cases include Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who was arrested in Jordan in March 2013 and turned over to U.S. agents. A jury in New York City convicted him in March of conspiring to kill Americans.

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AP National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.

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