WASHINGTON - U.S. special forces seized a "key leader" of the deadly Benghazi, Libya, attack and he is on his way to face trial in the U.S. for the fiery assault that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, the Obama administration announced Tuesday. It was the first breakthrough in the sudden overseas violence in 2012 that has become a festering political sore at home.
President Barack Obama said the capture on Sunday of Ahmed Abu Khattala sends a clear message to the world that "when Americans are attacked, no matter how long it takes, we will find those responsible and we will bring them to justice."
"We will find you," Obama declared.
As recently as last August, though, Abu Khattala told The Associated Press that he was not in hiding nor had he been questioned by Libyan authorities about the attack at the diplomatic compound. He denied involvement and said that he had abandoned the militia. Administration officials said Tuesday that despite his media interviews, he "evaded capture" until the weekend when military special forces, including members of the Army's elite Delta Force, nabbed him.
Whatever the path to his capture, he was headed for the United States to face what Obama called "the full weight of the American justice system." Obama called the Libyan an "alleged key leader" of the attack.
U.S. officials said Abu Khattala was being held on the Navy amphibious transport dock ship USS New York, which was in the Mediterranean Sea. The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss Abu Khattala's whereabouts.
The Libyan was the commander of a militant group called the Abu Obaida bin Jarrah Brigade and is accused of being a senior leader of the Benghazi branch of Ansar al-Shariah in Libya, which the U.S. has designated a terror group.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans urged the administration to get as much intelligence out of Abu Khattala as possible before anyone reads him his rights to remain silent, supplies him with a lawyer and prepares him for trial in a U.S. courtroom. In fact, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said interrogation of the Libyan already was underway and "we hope to find out some positive things."
Abu Khattala is charged with terror-related crimes in U.S. District Court in Washington and will be tried like a civilian, the administration said. The Obama administration policy is to treat terror suspects as criminals when possible and not send them to the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, like hundreds of terror suspects captured during the administration of President George W. Bush.
Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said the U.S. should skip the legal niceties and focus on interrogation.
"The most valuable thing we can get from this terrorist is information about who else was involved in this," McConnell told reporters. "We'll be watching closely to see how much information they glean from him and how they're handling it."