A Libyan militia leader convicted in the deadly 2012 Benghazi attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya that killed U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans was sentenced to 22 years in prison Wednesday by a federal judge in Washington.
The attacks also killed State Department employee Sean Smith — who died with Stevens in a fire at a U.S. mission residence — and CIA contractors Tyrone S. Woods and Glen Doherty, who died in a mortar attack as the assault shifted to a CIA annex in Benghazi.
Through a statement from the Justice Department, U.S. District Judge Christopher R. “Casey” Cooper announced the sentence on Wednesday in Washington.
“Even if you did not pour the gasoline or light the match, the evidence showed you were aware of the attack, and once the gates were breached, the likelihood someone would die was extreme high. This was not guilt by association,” Cooper told Khattala, according to The Washington Post.
“This fact alone, the first killing of a U.S. ambassador while in the performance of his duties in nearly 40 years, makes this case a truly singular event and warrants imposition of the maximum sentence permissible under the law,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael C. DiLorenzo wrote in a sentencing recommendation by prosecutors.
Fox News reports:
Four Americans were killed in the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attack: Ambassador Christopher Stevens, State Department official Sean Smith and security officers Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, both onetime Navy SEALs.
Prosecutors accused the defendant, who was captured in Libya on June 15, 2014, of heading an extremist militia and directing the attacks. But prosecutors also acknowledged they lacked evidence of his having fired any weapons. The government’s case against him relied heavily on the testimony of informants.
Defense attorneys argued that the evidence was inconclusive, and that their client was being singled out because of his ultraconservative Muslim beliefs.
Khattala was found guilty in November, as Fox News previously reported, on just four of 18 charges, precluding him from facing the death penalty. He was convicted of two counts of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, one count of maliciously destroying U.S. property and placing lives in danger, and one count of using and carrying a semiautomatic weapon during the attack.
The 2012 attack became instant political fodder, with Republicans accusing the Obama administration of intentionally misleading the public and stonewalling congressional investigators, though officials denied wrongdoing.
It continued to be a problem for Hillary Clinton during her failed 2016 White House bid, as critics accused her of pushing a false narrative linking the attack to protests over an anti-Islam video — and her State Department of neglecting the security needs of the team on the ground before the attack.
The case was widely regarded as one of the most significant terrorism prosecutions in recent years in a U.S. civilian court.
From The Washington Post:
Families of those killed, along with those wounded in the attack, submitted sealed statements to the judge, and Doherty’s and Woods’s families sat in the courtroom.
Woods’s widow, Dorothy, asked the judge to impose a life sentence to send a “message clear and strong” to Americans fighting on the front lines against terrorism “that I got your [back].” She said the attacks left her asking what was next for her and the couple’s 5-year-old son and wondering, “Will Ty have died for nothing?”
Abu Khattala’s defense said jurors found him not guilty of the murders of Stevens and Smith, arguing that they concluded that Abu Khattala joined the conspiracy at the mission after it was already on fire and that his “conduct did not lead to death.”
The defense noted that they also acquitted Abu Khattala of all charges in the related attack hours later on the nearby CIA annex. A life sentence for property crimes “would completely disregard, and I would say denigrate, the work and service of the jury. . . . It is clear that the jury in this case found that Mr. Abu Khattala didn’t commit murder,” said Jeffrey D. Robinson for attorneys with Federal Defender for the District of Columbia A.J. Kramer and the law firm Lewis Baach Kaufmann Middlemiss.
Abu Khattala was the first person convicted in the attacks. The Trump administration ordered the Oct. 29 capture of a second suspect, Mustafa al-Imam, who was brought to Washington and pleaded not guilty. But the mixed Abu Khattala verdict showed the challenge of investigating and prosecuting such cases.
Abu Khattala was a leader of an extremist militia that sought to establish strict Islamist rule in Libya and oust the U.S. intelligence presence in Benghazi after Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi was overthrown. U.S. intelligence assessments have reported that several groups were involved in the attacks, including Abu Khattala’s brigade.
Prosecutors presented what they called “indisputable” records linking the times of calls on Abu Khattala’s cellphone — but not call contents — to surveillance video taken at the diplomatic mission. They argued the links showed he was at least a key plotter with several participants in the attack in the minutes before, during and after the assault.
Before he ruled, Cooper said he was moved by statements by families — “real victims — not political pawns, not caricatures — but victims and loved ones who endured unfathomable suffering and grief” and praised the massive coordination of U.S. law enforcement, intelligence, diplomatic and military agencies in the case as “the government working at its best across numerous agencies.”
Cooper rejected Abu Khattala’s claim to be a “bystander,” saying he helped launch an attack that foreseeably led to death by driving his men to the mission where they stormed the gates, spoke with them throughout the attack, carried an assault rifle into an office while it was being ransacked and drove afterward to the camp of another extremist group.
“I don’t know if you were the main planner of the attack . . . but that does not mean your conduct was not serious. It was grave,” Cooper said. Deterring future attacks on U.S. government, contractor and local personnel in facilities around the world was a central consideration, he added.
“Anyone intent on doing those people harm, or doing harm to those facilities themselves must know there will be consequences, they will be appropriately prosecuted and given stiff sentences if they are convicted,” Cooper said. He added, “Anyone who might say the federal court system cannot handle a high profile terrorism trial obviously did not come and watch this one.”
Cooper said that it would have been constitutional, if controversial, for him to sentence Abu Khattala to life in prison — as the government sought — based on evidence he had heard that the jury did not. Or if he had based the decision on facts that were established with a lower burden of proof than the “beyond a reasonable doubt,” level required for a conviction.
Read the full article here.