Benghazi, Libya • Just days after President Barack Obama vowed to hunt down and bring to justice those responsible for the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound here, Ahmed Abu Khattala — one of those considered a ringleader — spent two leisurely hours Thursday evening at a luxury hotel full of journalists, relaxed in a red fez and sandals, sipping mango juice on a patio overlooking the Mediterranean and scoffing at the threats coming from both the American and Libyan governments.
Libya’s fledgling national army was a “national chicken,” Abu Khattala said, using an Arabic rhyme. Asked who should take responsibility for apprehending the mission’s attackers, he chuckled at the weakness of the Libyan authorities. And he accused U.S. leaders of “playing with the emotions of the American people” and “using the consulate attack just to gather votes for their elections.”
Abu Khattala’s defiance — no authority has even questioned him about the attack, he said, and he has no plans to go into hiding — offered insight into the shadowy landscape of the self-formed militias that have come to constitute the only source of social order in Libya since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi.
A few, like the militia group Ansar al-Shariah that is linked to Abu Khattala and that officials in Washington and Tripoli agree was behind the attack, have embraced an extremist ideology hostile to the West and nursed ambitions to extend it over Libya. But also troubling to the U.S. is the evident tolerance shown by other brigades thought to be more accepting of the West, which have so far declined to take any action against suspects in the Benghazi attack.
Although Abu Khattala said he was not a member of al-Qaida, he declared would be proud to be associated with al-Qaida’s puritanical zeal for Islamic law. And he said the U.S. had its own foreign policy to blame for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Why is the United States always trying to impose its ideology on everyone else?” he asked. “Why is it always trying to use force to implement its agendas?”
Owing in part to the inability of either the Libyans or the Americans to mount a serious investigation, U.S. dissections of the assault on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi have become muddled in a political debate over the identities and motivations of the attackers. Some Republicans have charged that the Obama administration initially sought to obscure a possible connection to al-Qaida in order to protect its claim to have brought the group to its knees.
Abu Khattala, 41, added his own new spin. Contradicting the accounts of many witnesses and the most recent account of the Obama administration, he contended that the attack had grown out of a peaceful protest against a video made in the U.S. mocking the Prophet Muhammad and Islam.
He also said that guards inside the compound — Libyan or American, he was not sure — had shot first at the demonstrators, provoking them. And he asserted, without providing evidence, that the attackers had found weapons, including explosives and guns mounted with silencers inside the U.S. compound.
But he insisted that he had not been part of the aggression that took place that night. He said he had arrived just as the gunfire was beginning to crackle and had sought to break up a traffic jam around the demonstration. After fleeing for a time, he said, he entered the compound at the end of the battle because he was asked to help try to rescue four Libyan guards working for the Americans who were trapped inside. Although the attackers had set fire to the main building, Abu Khattala said he had not noticed anything burning.
Although Abu Khattala is being scrutinized by the governments of Libya and the United States for his role, according to officials, and has been described by witnesses as being an active participant in the assault, he insisted in the interview that he had played no active role in the assault, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans. At the same time, he expressed a notable absence of remorse over what had occurred. “I did not know him,” he said of J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador who was killed.
He pointedly declined to condemn the idea that the demolition of a diplomatic mission was an appropriate response to such a video. “From a religious point of view, it is hard to say whether it is good or bad,” he said.
In Washington, a Republican member of the House committee investigating the attack scoffed at Abu Khattala’s account. “It just sounds fishy to say you are on the scene and not participating,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah. “It was pitch black at 9:40 at night.”
Abu Khattala contended that the U.S. had ulterior motives for helping Libyans during their revolution, and he asserted that it was meddling in Libya’s planned constitution, even though the recently elected parliament had not yet begun to discuss it.
He also said he opposed democracy as a contradiction with Islamic law, and he called those who supported secular constitutions “apostates,” using the terminology Islamist radicals apply to fellow Muslims who are said to disqualify themselves from the faith by collaborating with corrupt governments.
He argued that Islamists like those in the Muslim Brotherhood who embraced elections committed a “mix-up” of Western and Islamic systems. And he acknowledged that his opposition to elections had been a point of dispute between his followers and the other Libyan militia leaders, most of whom had protected and celebrated the vote.
Still, he said, “we have a very good relationship” with the leaders of Benghazi’s largest militias — which constitute the only security force for the government — from their days fighting together on the front lines of the revolt against Gadhafi. He even pointedly named two senior leaders of those important and usually pro-government brigades, whom he said he had seen outside the mission on the night of the attack.
Witnesses, Benghazi residents and Western news reports, including those in The New York Times, have described Abu Khattala as a leader of Ansar al-Shariah, whose trucks and fighters were seen attacking the mission. Abu Khattala praised them as “good people with good goals, which are trying to implement Islamic law,” and he insisted their network of popular support was vastly underestimated by other brigade leaders, who said the group had fewer than 200 fighters.
“It is bigger than a brigade,” he said. “It is a current of Islamic thought.”
Abu Khattala acknowledged closeness to the group, but said he was not an official part of it. Instead, he said he was still the commander of an Islamist brigade formed during the uprising against Gadhafi and known as Obeidah al-Jarrah.
Abu Khattala acknowledged that Libya was a thoroughly Muslim country. There are almost no Libyans of any other religion, alcohol is banned, polygamy is legal and most women wear some form of Islamic head-covering. But all of that still fell short, he said, and he contended that when Libya returned to Islamic law, the justice and prosperity of Islam’s golden age would return.