On the first day of trial for the Libyan man accused of planning the deadly 2012 attack on a US government compound in Benghazi, Libya, the jury heard from a State Department security officer who was one of the last people to see US ambassador Christopher Stevens alive.
On Sept. 11, 2012, Scott Wickland said he was sitting by a pool in the US compound when he heard shouting and then gunfire. He said he ran into the building where Stevens was staying, got his gear, and led Stevens and another State Department employee, Sean Smith, into a safe room protected by metal bars. A large group of people burst into the building and then, after a few men unsuccessfully tried to break the locks to the safe room, left.
But any relief was short-lived. Wickland said the lights started to go dim, and it took him a moment to realize it was because thick, black smoke was filling the building. He told Stevens and Smith that they were going to move to a bathroom with a window, about eight meters away. They started crawling, but along the way Wickland said he realized Stevens and Smith weren’t with him.
“That eight meters,“ he said, shaking his head. “To this day, I don't even know where they went. I was right next to them and then that’s it.”
Stevens and Smith died of smoke inhalation from a fire in the building. Two US security guards, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, died in an attack on a second US facility in Benghazi. To date, only one person, Libyan national Ahmed Abu Khatallah, has been publicly charged in a US court in connection with the incident. Khatallah’s trial, in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, is expected to last at least a month.
According to federal prosecutors, Khatallah was involved in orchestrating the attack. In his opening presentation to the jury on Monday, Assistant US Attorney John Crabb said that Khatallah did not start the fire that killed Stevens and Smith, or launch the mortars that killed the security officers, but he planned the assault along with a cadre of co-conspirators, stocking up on supplies in advance and warning others in the area not to interfere.
Khatallah, Crabb said, “hates America with a vengeance.”
Khatallah’s lawyers presented a starkly different narrative in their opening presentation. The evidence would show that other people were the “brains” of the operation, defense attorney Jeffrey Robinson told the jury. Khatallah, he said, went to the US compound that night only because he heard something had happened and went to see it for himself. When Khatallah arrived, a building was already on fire, Robinson said.
Khatallah was captured and charged because the US and Libyan governments needed to hold someone responsible, and Khatallah was “easy” to find, Robinson said. He disputed that statements that Khatallah made to FBI agents after he was captured would prove his guilt, and questioned the motives of the government’s witnesses, one of whom received a $7 million reward for gathering information and aiding in Khatallah’s capture in June 2014.
Robinson also indicated that the defense would focus on the fact that the FBI agents who questioned Khatallah during his 12-day sea voyage to the United States did not record any audio or video of the interviews. Before the trial, Khatallah’s lawyers unsuccessfully argued that statements he made at sea should be inadmissible at trial.
It’s a significant case for the US attorney’s office in Washington, DC, on several levels. Although the government identified more than a half-dozen alleged co-conspirators and participants in the attack during its opening presentation, Khatallah is the only person to stand trial so far. The US attorney’s office in DC has handled terrorism cases before, but not the same extent as its counterparts in New York and Alexandria, Virginia.
The District’s newly sworn-in US attorney, Jessie Liu, was in the courtroom for the first day of trial.
The trial comes two months after a federal appeals court ruled against the government in another high-profile case, vacating the conviction of a former Blackwater security contractor found guilty of first-degree murder in a 2007 mass shooting in Iraq. Crabb was a lead attorney for the government in that case as well.
There are 15 jurors hearing Khatallah’s case, nine women and six men. Khatallah was in court on Monday wearing a white button-down shirt, dark pants, and sneakers. He spoke little to his lawyers, listening to the arguments and testimony via headphones that piped in an Arabic translation from courtroom interpreters.
The 2012 attack in Benghazi took place in two locations: a US compound known as the “special mission,” and a nearby facility maintained by the CIA known as the “annex.” Crabb told jurors that Stevens had flown on Sept. 10, 2012, from Tripoli, Libya, where the US has its embassy, to Benghazi for meetings.
On the evening of Sept. 11, armed individuals attacked the US mission and entered the compound. Videos and photographs presented by the government on Monday showed men entering the grounds carrying an assortment of firearms. Crabb identified at least nine men by name whom he said were associates of Khatallah’s and allegedly participated in the planning or in the attack in some capacity. He showed the jury a video that he said captured Khatallah and other armed men entering one of the buildings inside the compound.
Khatallah suspected that the US compound was a spy post, Crabb said, and believed that America is “at the root of all the world’s problems.” Crabb said the evidence would show that Khatallah took steps to stop people from trying to help the Americans during the attack, including warning a local militia leader friendly to the Americans in advance of the attack not to interfere.
The government intends to present a witness, referred to as Ali, who became close to Khatallah at the US government’s request after the attack. Crabb said that Ali would testify that Khatallah said to him that he would have killed all the Americans during the attack if others hadn’t stopped him. It was Ali who in 2014 lured Khatallah to a small house in Benghazi where US forces were waiting to capture him.
Ali received a $7 million reward. Crabb said the payment was not tied to Ali’s testimony for the government.
But Robinson referred to the $7 million reward as he questioned the motives of Libyan witnesses who were expected to testify over the next few weeks. He said other witnesses received benefits for testifying and were enemies of Khatallah. Referring to Crabb’s claim that Khatallah harbored anti-American feelings, Robinson said that many Libyans were unhappy about the US presence in Libya, but that was not evidence of a crime. Khatallah fought against the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Robinson said, an effort that was backed by the United States.
Khatallah is a Muslim who believes that Libya should be governed by Islamic religious doctrine, Robinson said, but he urged the jury not to consider that as evidence of a crime.
Wickland was the first and only witness to testify on Monday. He described the many security features installed at the Benghazi compound, including bars on doors, windows with metal shutters, and the safe room.
He testified that when Stevens arrived in Benghazi on Sept. 10, the US personnel at the compound presented him with a bottle of whiskey to welcome him. Wickland said they thought Stevens would take the bottle and leave, but he opened it and poured glasses for everyone in the room.
Wickland said the security officers in the room made clear they couldn’t drink because they were working, but took part in a toast to Benghazi, the people who lived there, and the “good work” of US personnel on the ground.
Ahmed Abu Khatallah's name was misspelled in a previous version of this post.