By Rebecca Shabad - 06/17/14 11:47 AM EDT
U.S. special forces have captured a suspected ringleader of the 2012 Benghazi attacks in a secret raid Sunday in Libya.
The capture marks the first time the U.S. has apprehended a suspect in the terror attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, and would deliver a significant national security victory for the White House.
President Obama said he had authorized the raid to detain Khattala and that his administration from the beginning has been committed to finding those responsible for the attack.
“The fact that he is now in U.S. custody is a testament to the painstaking efforts of our military, law enforcement, and intelligence personnel," Obama said. "Because of their courage and professionalism, this individual will now face the full weight of the American justice system.”
Obama said the U.S. will continue to bring to justice other people behind the attacks and will “remain vigilant” against all acts of terrorism.
The Pentagon said Khattala had been taken with no civilian or U.S. casualites.
“There were no civilian casualties related to this operation, and all U.S. personnel involved in the operation have safely departed Libya,” Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby said.
He added that Khattala was in “U.S. custody in a secure location outside of Libya,” but declined to offer specifics.
Republicans in Congress quickly signaled that how Khattala is treated by the administration could become a political issue.
The Justice Department charged Khattala in federal court last year, signaling a possible civilian trial for the terrorist. But Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he should be sent to the Guantanamo Bay prison as an enemy combatant.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in a statement said it was good news that Khattala was in custody, but suggested the military should be able to question him without Miranda rights being read.
“I look forward to hearing more details regarding the raid, and I expect the administration to give our military professionals time to properly gather any useful intelligence he has,” Boehner said.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in a statement said she supports any efforts to extract information from Khattala, but that he should then be tried in a civilian court.
“I fully support the administration’s efforts to gather intelligence from Abu Khatallah and prosecute him in federal court. Past cases against terrorists like Abu Khatallah have shown that we can obtain intelligence, convict terrorists and lock them away for a very long time," she said. "The U.S. criminal justice system has successfully convicted over 500 terrorists since 9/11, and I have full confidence in the ability of our federal courts.”Reporters pressed State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Tuesday about why it took the U.S. nearly two years to apprehend him when multiple journalists were able to interview him during that time-frame.
“Reporters have interviewed a range of terrorists in the past,” she said, but “that’s entirely different from taking the steps necessary to apprehend someone in a country that’s not the U.S. We did it as expeditiously as possible.”
The Washington Post first reported the capture on Tuesday after agreeing to a White House request to delay publication because of security concerns.
Officials told the Post that Khattala is “en route” to the U.S. and expected to be arraigned on charges in Washington. But they declined to share his exact current location or when he was expected to arrive in the U.S.
Asked if the U.S. coordinated the raid with the Libyan government, one official said it was “a unilateral U.S. operation.”
Khattala was charged last year with at least a dozen other suspects by the U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia over their connection to the Benghazi attacks.
The Justice Department retains the option of adding more charges in the coming days against Khattala, Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. Khattala currently faces criminal charges on three counts.
“Even as we begin the process of putting Khattala on trial and seeking his conviction before a jury, our investigation will remain ongoing as we work to identify and arrest any co-conspirators," Holder said. "This is our pledge; we owe the victims of the Benghazi attack and their loved ones nothing less.”The three criminal charges against Khattala include providing material support to terrorists resulting in death, using a firearm in a crime of violence and killing a person in an attack on a federal facility.
If he’s convicted under the last crime, he could be eligible for the death penalty. On Tuesday, a Justice Department official declined to comment further about what the agency plans to seek as punishment if he's convicted.
Khattala was designated by the State Department as a terrorist in January and is considered a “senior leader” of the Benghazi branch of the militant group Ansar al-Sharia.
Officials touted the capture as a victory for the Obama administration, which has faced sharp criticism from GOP lawmakers over their handling of the terror attack.
The U.S. has sought those behind the attack for nearly two years.
An official told the Post that Khattala’s capture is “a reminder that, when the United States says it’s going to hold someone accountable and he will face justice, this is what we mean.”
— Kristina Wong contributed.
This story was updated at 2:08 p.m.