Benghazi suspect is a shadowy figure among militias

MAGGIE MICHAEL Associated Press Published:

CAIRO (AP) -- A strange silence has met the U.S. capture of a Libyan militant accused in the 2012 attack that killed the American ambassador and three others. In his hometown of Benghazi in eastern Libya, there have been few threats of revenge, only speculation among supporters and opponents that Ahmed Abu Khattala was betrayed by an insider.

Abu Khattala had said for months he had no fear of the Americans snatching him, living at his home and saying he worked as a construction contractor. Before U.S. commandos snatched him from Benghazi a week ago, he had been battling alongside the militant group Ansar al-Shariah against the troops of Khalifa Hifter, a renegade Libyan general who has waged an offensive aimed at crushing Islamic militants around Libya, Abu Khattala's brother Abu Bakr told Associated Press.

Abu Khattala was a prominent figure in the eastern city of Benghazi's thriving circles of extremists, popular among young radicals for being among the most hard-core and uncompromising of those calling for Libya to be ruled by Islamic Shariah law. But he was always something of a lone figure. Even after he joined Ansar al-Shariah -- the group accused by the United States of carrying out the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi -- he didn't take a leadership position or a post in its decision-making bodies, noted Fadlallah Haroun, a former rebel commander in Benghazi who met Abu Khattala in prison in the 1990s.

"He was always an outsider," Haroun, who opposes the Islamists and whose brother is a top intelligence official, told AP. "He was a very simple man, who was honest in his talk and independent."

That may have made it easier for the U.S. to track him down. Among Benghazi officials and militants, there were multiple theories floating over who could have given away his location to the Americans. Some pointed the finger at Hifter. Others said Islamist militias may have turned him, hoping to relieve the pressure on themselves in Hifter's offensive. So far, a week after his capture, Ansar al-Shariah has not commented -- perhaps a sign it was trying to determine who betrayed him.

"For sure he was sold out," Abu Khattala's brother, Abu Bakr, told Associated Press on Friday. "It's very clear that he was betrayed. We will pin it down until we figure out who did it."

Mohammed Hegazi, a spokesman for Hifter's forces, described Abu Khattala as a "spiritual leader" of the extremist religious groups and militias in Benghazi. He accused him of orchestrating the looting of banks in the central city of Sirte, without offering evidence.

"Abu Khattala's source of power is the large following among extremist and terrorist groups that believe in him," said Hegazi. "He was their spiritual leader and he was a financier."

But Abu Khattala was not the group's top leader -- that was its founder, Mohammed al-Zawahi. While he was close to its leadership, he didn't join any of its decision-making bodies, Haroun said.

Abu Khattala's brother Abu Bakr said that in past months, he would disappear from his home in Benghazi for several days at a time because of the fighting with Hifter's forces. Their father last spoke with Abu Khattala on the morning of June 16, he said -- and after that his phone went dead.

Abu Khattala acknowledged in an interview with AP in January that he was present during the storming of the U.S. mission in Benghazi. But he denied involvement in the attack, saying he was trying to organize a rescue of trapped people.

In the attack, gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades and stormed the mission, many waving the black banners of Ansar al-Shariah. The compound's main building was set ablaze. Ambassador Chris Stevens suffocated to death inside and another American was shot dead. Later in the evening, gunmen attacked and shelled a safe house, killing two more Americans.

At the time, several witnesses said they saw Abu Khattala directing fighters at the site.

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