CAIRO — The Libyan militant suspected in the deadly Sept. 11, 2012 attack on Americans in Benghazi was not a difficult man to find.
Ahmed Abu Khattala lived openly and freely in the restive eastern Libyan city — seen at cafes and in public places — even after the U.S. administration named him and another militant as suspects in the attack two years ago that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
“I am in my city, having a normal life and have no troubles,” he told The Associated Press late last year after he was first accused. He denied the allegations and said he didn’t fear being abducted from Libya.
That changed Sunday when he was detained by U.S. forces, marking the first U.S. apprehension of an alleged perpetrator in the assault that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Abu Khattala is being held in an undisclosed location outside of Libya and will be tried in U.S. court, according to the Pentagon press secretary, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby.
A man who identified himself as Abu Khattala’s brother, Abu Bakr, called the AP office in Cairo to ask if reports his brother had been detained were true.
He confirmed that his brother has been absent and his phone switched off since Sunday. He hung up after hearing the information about the capture and did not provide more details or comment.
Abu Khattala, was the commander of a militant group called the Abu Obaida bin Jarrah Brigade. Washington has accused him of being a member of the Ansar al-Shariah group, which is believed to be behind the attack and was listed by the U.S. as a terrorist group in January.
He claimed his group was only operational during the 2011 war against ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and has since disbanded.
A witness interviewed by AP following the attack said Abu Khattala was at present at the building when it came under attack nearly two years ago, directing fighters. He admitted being there, but said he was helping in the rescue of men trapped in the area.
“It was the first time I learned that there was a U.S. consulate in this place,” Abu Khattala said a month after the attack. “And I never learned about, met, or had any relation with the U.S. ambassador.”
He said authorities never questioned him.
His confidence partly stemmed from the power that Islamic militants have accumulated in Libya since Gadhafi was ousted and killed. Militia groups, some of them inspired by al-Qaida, have operated with virtual impunity in the country, with the central government too weak to take action against them.
Abu Khattala, believed to be in his early 40s, had been imprisoned four to five times between 1996 and 2010 in Abu Salim prisons during Gadhafi’s rule, a notorious prison in the capital where most of his Islamist opponents were held. He was released in 2010 under a government amnesty.
But his name had surfaced as a suspect in the assassination of Abdel-Fattah Younis, the former top security chief under Gadhafi who defected to rebels and was gunned down along with his bodyguards in July 2011. Rebels then disbanded Abu Khattala’s group, and some members are believed to have joined Ansar al-Shariah.
He said he has since been working as a construction contractor.
Abu Khattala, believed to be originally from the western city of Misrata, seemed to be a mysterious character with few friends in Benghazi. A resident in the city who agreed to talk about him on condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety said people feared to even get close to the al-Lithi neighborhood where Abu Khattala lived.
Mohammed Abu Sedra, an Islamist lawmaker in Libya, said he knew Abu Khattala during his imprisonment in Abu Salim.
“I remember that he was very introverted, depressed all the time and never talked to anyone. I always thought that he was not normal,” Abu Sedra said.