The long arm of US law


It was not just that a US ambassador was murdered along with a fellow diplomat and two US security guards; what incensed the Americans was that Chris Stevens, their envoy to Libya, was murdered in Benghazi on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 enormity. In all the many presidential promises to the American public since George W. Bush declared his war on terror in 2001, the vow to find and prosecute those suspected of the Benghazi consulate killings has been the most prominent.

This week, the first fruit of that promise saw the conviction of a 46-year-old Libyan building worker in a Washington court. Ahmed Abu Khattala was accused of organizing the attack on the US consular premises in Libya’s second city. However, the prosecution was unable to persuade the jury of the evidence it had amassed to prove this. But even though Khattala was found not guilty on 14 of the 18 charges against him, the four that stuck - including that he gave material support to terrorism, had led the search of the US diplomatic buildings and had carried a semi-automatic weapon while doing so - are sufficient to get him 60 years in jail.

He is unlikely to ever see Libya again. This long legal process, which may yet see Khattala’s lawyers appeal, began with his abduction by US Special Forces in Benghazi in 2014. Other such American military operations, most famously the deadly attack against Osama Bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout, have produced international protests. Yet Washington argued that when a country could not or would not prosecute a terror suspect, it had the right to take the law into its own hands. This was highly questionable when the wanted men ended up in the legal limbo of Guantanamo Bay after being kidnapped by secret agents as part of the dubious Extraordinary Rendition program.

But this time it was different. Khattala was tried in an open court on the US mainland, though a succession of intelligence community witnesses appeared in a range of disguises, including unconvincing wigs and false beards. US Special Forces got hold of a second Benghazi consulate murder suspect earlier this month. Mustafa Al-Imam was flown from Misrata to a US warship and made his first appearance in a Washington court as the Khattala trial was coming to an end. There remain questions about Imam’s capture suggesting that far from its being a daring raid, the suspect was lured from his Tripoli home to Misrata where he was grabbed by fellow Libyans who handed him over to helicopter-borne US troops. This is feasible, since it is not simply that a great many Libyans - of all political colors - were appalled at the murder of Stevens, a hugely popular ambassador, but that Washington has pledged bounties of millions of dollars for evidence that will lead to the capture and conviction of the Benghazi killers. A Libyan who gave evidence against Khattala admitted he had been paid seven million dollars.

As justice goes, the Khattala and Imam trials are not totally satisfactory. Yet the idea that terrorist suspects can escape prosecution and probably carry on their evil is even less acceptable.