Libya attack suspect sips mango juice, scoffs at US at luxury hotel

Libya attack suspect sips mango juice, scoffs at US at luxury hotel
Benghazi, Libya:  Witnesses and the authorities have called Ahmed Abu Khattala one of the ringleaders of the Sept. 11 attack on the American diplomatic mission here. But just days after President Obama reasserted his vow to bring those responsible to justice, Mr. Abu Khattala spent two leisurely hours on Thursday evening at a crowded luxury hotel, sipping mango juice on a patio and scoffing at the threats coming from the American and Libyan governments.

Libya's fledgling national army is a "national chicken," Mr. Abu Khattala said, using an Arabic rhyme. Asked who should take responsibility for apprehending the mission's attackers, he smirked at the idea that the weak Libyan government could possibly do it. And he accused the leaders of the United States of "playing with the emotions of the American people" and "using the consulate attack just to gather votes for their elections."

Mr. 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 Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

A few, like the militia group Ansar al-Shariah that is linked to Mr. 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 United States is the evident tolerance shown by other militias allied with the government, which have so far declined to take any action against suspects in the Benghazi attack.

Although Mr. Abu Khattala said he was not a member of Al Qaeda, he declared he would be proud to be associated with Al Qaeda's puritanical zeal for Islamic law. And he said that the United States 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, American 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 Qaeda in order to protect its claim to have brought the group to its knees.

Mr. Abu Khattala, 41, wearing a red fez and sandals, added his own 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 United States that mocked 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 American compound.

Although Mr. Abu Khattala's exact role remains unclear, witnesses have said they saw him directing other fighters that night. Libyan officials have singled him out, and officials in Washington say they are examining his role.

But Mr. Abu Khattala insisted that he had not been part of the aggression at the American compound. 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, Mr. Abu Khattala said he had not noticed anything burning.

At the same time, he expressed a notable absence of remorse over the assault, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including J. Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador. "I did not know him," he said.

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 Mr. Abu Khattala's account. "It just sounds fishy to say you are on the scene and not participating," said Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican. "It was pitch black at 9:40 at night."

Mr. Abu Khattala contended that the United States had ulterior motives for helping Libyans during their revolution, and he asserted that it was already 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 contrary to 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 Colonel Qaddafi. He even pointedly named two senior leaders of those big 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 Mr. Abu Khattala as a leader of Ansar al-Shariah, whose trucks and fighters were seen attacking the mission. Mr. Abu Khattala praised the group's members 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 movement."

Mr. Abu Khattala said he was close to the group but was not an official part of it. Instead, he said, he was still the commander of an Islamist brigade, Abu Obaida ibn al-Jarrah. Some of its members joined Ansar al-Shariah, but Mr. Abu Khattala said that even though his brigade had disbanded he could still call it together. "If the individuals are there, the brigade is there," he said.

During the revolt, the brigade was accused of killing a top general who had defected to the rebels, Abdul Fattah Younes. Mr. Abu Khatalla acknowledged that the general had died in the brigade headquarters, but declined to discuss it further.

Almost all Libyans are Muslims, alcohol is banned, polygamy is legal, almost every woman wears an Islamic head-covering. But all of that still fell short, he said, of true Islamic law.

Suliman Ali Zway contributed reporting from Tripoli, Libya, and Michael S. Schmidt from Washington.

© 2012, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: October 19, 2012 10:27 IST

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