June 18, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Catch and Remand: The Capture of Abu Khattala

•The joint FBI and US Special Operations Forces’ capture of Ahmad Abu Khattala will provide an opportunity for justice for the 2012 US Consulate attack in Benghazi, with Khattala facing charges in federal court

• The capture will also provide officials with an opportunity to learn more about Abu Khattala’s group, associates, and plans, as well the potential to save lives, disrupt threats, and diminish the group’s influence

• As in the case of the 1998 US embassy bombings suspect, Abu Anas al-Libi, captured in Libya in 2013, the apprehension of Khattala is a return to the time-tested effectiveness of joint intelligence, law enforcement, and military-led capture for federal civilian trial

• This approach is most effective in the exact areas terrorists consider their sanctuaries, and has no time limitations on its implementation.


For every one of the 583 days since the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, various US agencies have worked together to find those responsible for the attack and bring them to justice. The announcement that a US team of special operations forces commandos and FBI special agents captured Ahmad Abu Khattala, one of the leading figures of the attack, in a raid near Benghazi over the weekend is the culmination of that effort. It is the result of a return to a long-successful approach to counterterrorism cases, one that is again proving very effective. This hybrid operation—catch and remand—will next see Abu Khattala tried in US federal court.

The strategy depends on two things the US does extremely well: the ability of special warfare operators to quickly and surgically, in exceedingly dangerous locations, detain  wanted terrorists; and the ability of US civilian law enforcement and prosecutors to build viable cases involving complicated terrorism issues, to be tried in the US federal court system. Between those critical phases is the interview of the high value detainees, conducted by well-trained and highly experienced intelligence interview teams, for information that meets national security requirements related to terrorist and other threats.

US special operations forces have long been used to capture or kill wanted terrorists. But in a marked break from recent years, the goal of the detention is once again to turn the suspect over for federal civilian prosecution, not military tribunal or indefinite detention. This approach leverages the power of the military with the institution of US justice, which has proven to be the most effective venue for obtaining detailed organizational information from high-profile terrorism suspects, followed by a fair trial review.

It took 5,539 days for special operations forces and FBI to capture Abu Anas al-Libi, an original al-Qaeda member and suspect in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The October 2013 military-led raid in Tripoli followed the same approach as with Abu Khattala. After a massive and lengthy intelligence collection effort, al-Libi was located in Tripoli. After more planning, he was captured, debriefed, and then turned over to the FBI to stand trial for the bombings. He is now awaiting federal trial in New York City, where many other terrorists have been successfully prosecuted.

Ahmad Abu Khattala, aka Ahmad Mukatalah, reported to be one of the leaders of al-Qaeda-inspired Ansar al-Sharia and founder of his own group known as the Abu Ubaydah ibn al-Jarah Brigade, will at some time be turned over to the FBI and will stand trial in Washington, DC, before the US District Court for the District of Columbia. Importantly, as in the past, most of the information obtained in his prosecution will be available to the public, meaning analysts, activists, researchers, and journalists can use the information to contribute to the body of evidence against these groups and conceive of ways to counter their impact. Secret trials, which have proven wholly incapable in prosecuting terror cases, result in secret information with very limited use. Since 9/11, US federal courts have managed to convict almost 500 in terrorism cases.

For background, Abu Khattala was born in Benghazi,  with some sources listing year of birth as 1971 and others as 1973. Initially described as outgoing by neighbors, he has a long history of violence. He is reported to have become radicalized and withdrawn before he was 20 years old. He was arrested in 1991 by the Qadhafi regime for illegal military activity in the Benghazi area, and was released in 2004. When the 2011 revolution started, Abu Khattala formed an insurgent cell dedicated to fighting regime units. In a sign of his violent ambitions, Abu Khattala was suspected by other rebel factions in the July 2011 killing of former Libyan Interior Minister Abdul Fatah Yunis, who had split with the regime and was a leading rebel general at the time of his death. The loss of Yunis was a serious blow to the hopes that Libya would unify around a popular official in the revolution’s aftermath. The members of Khattala’s cell would go on to form Ansar al-Sharia.

In an ironic twist, the captures of Abu Khattala and Abu Anas were in areas so violent and lawless that both terrorists and government officials considered them sanctuaries. The lack of local law enforcement and functioning government allows terrorists to operate less clandestinely than in more stable areas. The well-documented dangers of terrorist sanctuary—from Afghanistan to Iraq—led to the formulation of an approach called sanctuary denial, in which governments seek to control areas to deny terrorists the time and space in which to train and plan. Unfortunately, this almost never happens, as such efforts invariably run into uphill costs, manpower, and resistance. In early 2013, we wrote of an alternative approach, sanctuary management, that leverages the inherent instability of a region against the terrorists in it, through intelligence, drones, and special operations forces.

With the successful capture of Abu Khattala, Ansar al-Sharia, and like groups have probably suffered a meaningful blow (it’s hard to replace talent, as al-Qaeda Central knows quite well). But the notion that terrorists can hide in relative sanctuary has also suffered a meaningful blow. The very chaos that allows them to operate with little fear of local restraint also allows US and allied special warriors to operate. And as the catch and remand approach delivers more suspects to trial, it will again prove the inherent power of a full-bodied approach to the problem, uniting the strengths of intelligence, military, and law enforcement against the hardest targets. It will also provide significant counterterrorism benefits while avoiding the complications that have befallen detention without charge.


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