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October 19, 2017

Benghazi Trial Enters Second Week

By Sara Sirota

Last week the trial of Ahmed Abu Khattala, alleged mastermind of the 2012 Benghazi attack, continued before a Washington, D.C. federal court. Military and FBI agents apprehended Khattala in Libya and held him on a Navy vessel for 13 days before transferring him to the United States and charging him in District Court in Washington, D.C. 

One benefit of federal court trials is that the public can easily view them. Khatalla's trial, in a civilian courtroom in Washington, D.C., enables Americans to freely attend proceedings and hear directly from parties involved in what happened during the Benghazi attacks and their aftermath. Last Wednesday, they had the opportunity to hear from special agent Michael Byrnes, who testified about the FBI’s investigation and evidence recovered from the CIA annex and special mission building where the fighting occurred.

Many of the photographs of the buildings that the FBI took were projected onto screens for the jury, Khattala, his attorneys, and the audience to view. Photos showed the ladder that security agents climbed to reach the CIA annex roof where CIA operatives Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods died and State Department Diplomatic Security Agent David Ubben suffered life-threatening injuries.

Observers heard Byrnes describe the extensive procedures that the FBI team followed while conducting their investigation. Investigators took entry photographs before removing evidence and exit photographs to show what scenes looked like upon leaving. They filled out several documents, including a search warrant execution log, an administrative worksheet listing personnel involved in the search, an evidence recovery log, and a photographic log. Byrnes noted that the team investigated under a time crunch because of safety concerns, while the Department of Defense maintained security.

Abu Khattala is the latest in a string of high-profile terrorism suspects to face trial in the federal court system. These include “Shoe Bomber” Richard Reid, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, and most recently Chelsea bomber Ahmad Khan Rahimi, who have all been convicted in federal court. Indeed, federal courts have convicted more than 620 individuals on terrorism-related charges since 9/11.

Federal courts are perfectly capable of prosecuting terrorism cases. As stated in Khatalla’s criminal complaint, his alleged offenses in Libya fall within the extraterritorial jurisdiction of the United States and within the venue of the District Court for the District of Columbia. The United States Code also criminalizes acts of terrorism and other related offenses.

Both intelligence and FBI agents had the opportunity to interrogate Khattala, and the court has protected classified information during his trial. For example, a court document describing Khatalla’s capture in Libya and subsequent interrogations blocks out details of the intelligence interrogations (conducted before Khattala was read his Miranda rights) yet keeps those of the FBI. Also, last Tuesday, the New York Times reported that two CIA officers testified in Khattala’s trial using fake names and wearing disguises to conceal their identities.

Khattala’s trial is expected to last about six weeks. Meanwhile, hearings are currently also underway at the Guantanamo military commissions, where the five accused 9/11 plotters have been in the pretrial phase for over five years, with no trial start date in sight. The difference could not be more stark. Federal courts are the far superior avenue to prosecute terrorism suspects efficiently and effectively.