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Justice Continues: Benghazi Masterminds Serving Time

By Sasha Brisbon

On September 11, 2012, heavily armed Islamist militants launched an organized attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, setting fire to a building before all U.S. personnel could escape or reinforcements could arrive. The attackers later launched mortar rounds at the U.S. diplomatic compound and CIA annex in the Libyan city of Benghazi. As a result, four Americans to include U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens were killed in the line of duty, making it the first time since 1979 that a U.S. ambassador was killed in the line of duty.

Hours after the attack, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement,

“I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today…The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”

The next day, President Obama announced that Stevens was among those killed in the Benghazi assault. The President continued, “while the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.”

Shortly thereafter, Ahmed Abu Khattalah (Khattalah), a senior leader of the Benghazi branch of the militant group Ansar al-Sharia, was identified as one of the ringleaders of the attack on the diplomatic mission. In 2017, Khattalah was convicted on terrorism charges, but the jury declined to find him directly responsible for the deaths of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans. Khattalah faces up to life in prison, including up to 15 years for each of two counts of terrorism and up to 20 years for destruction of property. He also was convicted of using a semiautomatic weapon in a crime of violence, which is punishable by up to life in prison and carries a mandatory minimum term of 10 years to be served on top of any other sentence.

Furthermore, the case was seen as a test of detention and interrogation policies developed under the Obama administration to capture terrorism suspects overseas for criminal trial, with the outcome likely to figure into decisions about whether to use civilian courts for similar prosecutions. The Trump administration, however, showed a willingness to continue bringing terrorism cases in civilian courts to include the Benghazi suspects. More specifically, in 2017, President Trump announced that “on [his] orders,” U.S. forces captured  Mustafa Al-Imam, one of Khattalah’s co-conspirators, to “face justice in the United States.” Khattalah became the first person convicted for the attacks, but the mixed verdict shows the challenge of investigating and bringing such cases. Brian Egan, a senior White House and State Department legal adviser during the Obama administration, said the mixed verdict will be “cold comfort” to Abu Khattala, given the possibility of lengthy imprisonment. “This was done, in a very challenging case, through a criminal justice system that is time-tested and respected. I think that this is a win for the U.S. government and its care in effectuating Khattala’s capture, interrogation, transfer and prosecution,” Egan said.

Following Khattalah’s conviction, Mustafa Al-Imam, his co-conspirator, was captured in Libya in 2017 and brought to the United States to face trial in the District of Columbia. Al-Imam was found guilty by a jury in June 2019, following a six-week trial, of one count of conspiracy to provide material support or resources to terrorists and one count of maliciously destroying and injuring dwellings and property, and placing lives in jeopardy within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

According to the evidence presented at trial, a group of extremists, armed with AK-47 rifles, grenades, and other weapons, swept into the U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi, setting fires and breaking into buildings.  During that violence, Ambassador Stevens, U.S. government personnel Sean Smith, and Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) Special Agent Scott Wickland valiantly tried to protect themselves when the attackers stormed into the Ambassador’s residence, sheltering in a secure area.  However, when the attackers could not gain entry to the secure area, the attackers set fire to the residence.

Al-Imam arrived shortly after the attack began, accompanying Khatallah. During the attack, Al-Imam maintained contact with Khatallah in a series of cellphone calls, including an 18-minute phone call that took place during the height of the attack.  Members of the extremist group were caught on surveillance video attacking the mission.  After the American security personnel withdrew, Al-Imam, Khatallah, and several other extremists entered the mission’s office and removed sensitive information, including maps and other documents related to the location of the CIA’s Annex in Benghazi.

On January 23, 2020, Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers, U.S. Attorneys for the District of Columbia Jessie K. Liu, Executive Assistant Director of the FBI’s National Security Branch Jay Tabb, and Assistant Director in Charge William F. Sweeney, Jr. of the FBI’s New York Field Office announced Al-Imam, the 47-year-old Libyan national, was sentenced to 236 months in prison on federal terrorism charges and other offenses stemming from the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the U.S. Special Mission and CIA Annex in Benghazi, Libya. 

“We have not rested in our efforts to bring to justice those involved in the terrorist attacks on our facilities in Benghazi, which led to the death of four courageous Americans – Tyrone Woods, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, and Ambassador Christopher Stevens – and we never will,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers.  “Those responsible for these crimes must be held accountable. The Assistant Attorney General continued by reassuring the American public that Al-Imam’s sentence demonstrates the United States’ continuing commitment to pursue justice against those who commit terrorist acts against the United States no matter how far we must go or how long it takes.”

Between 1998 (the year of the terrorist attacks against the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania) and 2012, 273 significant attacks were carried out against U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel. The need to place personnel in high-risk locations carries significant vulnerabilities for the United States. It is important to acknowledge that diplomacy and intelligence collection are inherently risky, and that all risk cannot be eliminated. Diplomatic and intelligence personnel work in high-risk locations all over the world to collect information necessary to prevent future attacks against the United States and our allies. As a result, the U.S. Select Committee on Intelligence composed a review to help increase security and reduce the risks to our personnel serving overseas and to better explain what happened before, during, and after the attacks.


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