TEL AVIV – While U.S. forces on Sunday captured primary Benghazi suspect Ahmed Abu Khattallah, it was not their first attempt at seizing the senior leader of the Benghazi branch of the Ansar al-Sharia terrorist organization.
Last October, a perplexing decision made by President Obama himself essentially sabotaged an operation in which Special Forces were reportedly just hours from capturing Khattallah, one of the most important terrorist figures charged with carrying out the Benghazi murders.
Following Obama’s decision in October, top U.S. officials were left asking uncomfortable questions about the timing and manner in which the U.S. seized wanted militant Abu Anas al-Libi, who was living openly in his home in Libya and likely could have been captured at a different time.
It became increasingly clear the decision to capture al-Libi all but thwarted an ongoing operation in which covert U.S. operatives were at the same time tracking Khattallah’s every move. The operatives were on standby, ready to seize Khattalah, waiting for orders to carry out the arrest operation.
The Libyan government reportedly granted the U.S. permission to seize both al-Libi and Khattalah in October.
In August 2013, almost one year after the assault, the United States filed the first criminal charges in the Benghazi attack against Khatallah, whom witnesses placed at the scene during the initial assault on the U.S. Special Mission.
Khatallah’s al-Qaida-linked Ansar al-Sharia group advocates strict Shariah implementation and the creation of the Islamic Caliphate. The group infamously first took credit for the attack in social media while later claiming it “didn’t participate [in the attack] as a sole entity.” Witnesses told the media that not only did they see Ansar al-Sharia men laying siege to the compound, they also spotted vehicles brandishing Ansar al-Sharia’s logo at the scene.
Khatallah went somewhat underground after charges were filed in the U.S. Still, prior to and in the days following the filings he gave several interviews to the international news media in which he praised the attacks but denied personal responsibility.
Anas al-Libi, on the other hand, was fingered for allegedly helping to plan the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in the East African cities of Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. The indictment accuses al-Libi, a computer expert for al-Qaida, of personally carrying out surveillance of potential U.S., British, French, and Israeli targets in Nairobi for possible attack by al-Qaida and Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
Like Khatallah, al-Libi gave scores of interviews to the international news media, including some from his home.
Al-Libi was seized in Tripoli by U.S. Special Forces on Oct. 5 in a very public daylight raid outside his home while his family looked on. Family members immediately predictably told the news media about the raid.
The Associated Press quoted al-Libi’s family saying foreign-looking agents in a three-car convoy seized al-Libi while they watched.
Al-Libi’s brother, Nabih, told the AP he was parking his car outside his house after dawn prayers when the gunmen in the convoy encircled his vehicle and seized his gun before grabbing al-Libi.
Nabih told the AP that al-Libi’s wife watched the raid unfold from her window.
This very public raid was carried out as Special Forces had worked for months to track wanted Benghazi ringleader Khattalah and were only hours from nabbing him, U.S. officials told CNN.
Not only was Al-Libi’s capture almost immediately leaked to the news media, four days later – on October 9 – the Obama administration strangely told the news media that the Libyan government had approved the al-Libi raid and also granted permission to seize Khatallah.
The details were splashed on the front page of the New York Times in a story titled “U.S. Officials Say Libya Approved Commando Raids.”
The article quotes “more than half a dozen American diplomatic, military, law enforcement, intelligence and other administration officials.” Regarding the Libyan government’s approval, the Times reports, “The Libyans’ consent marks a significant step forward for the Obama administration, which has been criticized by Congressional Republicans for moving too slowly to apprehend the Benghazi suspects.”
In its reporting, the Times notes the leak of the al-Libi raid may have tipped off Khattala.
Reported the Times, “While American officials expected that the Libyan government would claim that it had known nothing about the operation, news of the raid has raised concerns that the suspect in the Benghazi attacks, Ahmed Abu Khattala, has now been tipped off that the United States has the ability to conduct an operation in Libya.” Even the Times was puzzled, writing, “It is not clear why American military commanders did not conduct both operations simultaneously to avoid this problem.”
Indeed, U.S. Forces may have been ready to act to capture Khattalah as soon as the day after al-Libi’s arrest, according to some officials speaking to CNN.
The news network revealed a top level White House meeting was scheduled for around Oct. 7 to get Obama’s final approval to capture Khattalah.
However, al-Libi’s capture and its subsequent leak to news media sent Khattalah underground and further caused a major rift with the Libyan government, which demanded an end to any future U.S. raids.
CNN reported the Khattalah raid never materialized “partly because there was so much publicity inside Libya and in the Western press about the al-Libi capture.”
The publicity about al-Libi’s capture was nearly unavoidable since U.S. forces for some reason seized the wanted terrorist in broad daylight instead of capturing him in a more secretive manner.
CNN related the aborted Khattalah capture is leading “to sensitive questions inside the administration about the tradeoff between getting al-Libi and going after the perpetrators of the politically charged Benghazi attack.” Obama previously vowed to make it is a “priority” to bring the Benghazi suspects “to justice.”
In its Oct. 9 front page piece, the New York Times disclosed the efforts to track Khattalah had been in place for months. The newspaper further reported the Pentagon “has been preparing contingency plans for months in the event Mr. Obama orders a military operation” to seize Khattalah and other terrorists for the Benghazi attack.