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06.17.14

Why Delta Force Waited So Long to Grab a Benghazi Ringleader

In echoes of the raid to capture Osama bin Laden, Delta Force operators practiced the raid to capture Ahmed abu Khatallah on a mock-up of his compound at Fort Bragg before going into the real thing.

The mission to capture Ahmed abu Khatallah, one of the ringleaders of the September 11, 2012 attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya was more than a year in the making.

In the months leading up to the raid, teams from the Army’s 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, or Delta Force, practiced the extradition on a mock-up of abu Khatallah’s compound at Fort Bragg, according to a U.S. military contractor familiar with the planning for the mission. Eventually, it was a Delta Team with embedded FBI agents on Sunday that snagged the man wanted for the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens, State Department officer Sean Smith and CIA contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.

The Obama administration has come under withering criticism because the whereabouts of abu Khatallah have been generally known. Journalists in Libya were able to interview him, critics asked, so why couldn’t American special operators track him down, too?

But other U.S. officials, who spoke to The Daily Beast anonymously because they were not authorized to talk to the press, said the mission to grab abu Khatallah had been planned for more than a year. Indeed, the Benghazi ringleader had been in the sights of Delta Force operators at the end of August, according to these sources, but no order was given at the time. A senior administration official told The Daily Beast that the delay in apprehending the suspect was due in part to requests from the Justice Department to gather appropriate evidence to prosecute him in criminal court. 

The practice and patience paid off, apparently. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday’s raid resulted in no casualties. A senior administration official told The Daily Beast that the Delta Force team was able to trick abu Khatallah into letting the team into the compound, allowing the special operations team to apprehend the suspect without a fight.

The mission to capture abu Khatallah was something that was considered by top interagency officials in what is known as the deputies committee for months. Unlike the October 5, 2013 capture Abu Anas al-Libi, an accused planner of the 1998 al Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the authority to capture abu Khatallah did not derive from the congressional authorization to go to war against al Qaeda.

While House and Senate investigators have said their probes have turned up evidence that the Benghazi attacks were coordinated and planned by people working with al Qaeda affiliates, the U.S. intelligence community has not determined that abu Khatallah was himself connected to al Qaeda. Without such a connection, the U.S. president was not authorized to kill or capture him under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force against al Qaeda.

The Obama administration has come under withering criticism because the whereabouts of abu Khatallah have been generally known. Journalists in Libya were able to interview him, critics asked, so why couldn’t American journalists track him down, too?

Abu Khatallah was, however, indicted for his role in the Benghazi attack. The president, according to U.S. officials, therefore had the authority to send the Delta and FBI team because of the inherent authorities to pursue outlaws wanted by a U.S. court of law.

“Khatallah currently faces criminal charges on three counts, and we retain the option of adding additional charges in the coming days,” said Attorney General Eric Holder in a statement Tuesday. “Even as we begin the process of putting Khatallah on trial and seeking his conviction before a jury, our investigation will remain ongoing as we work to identify and arrest any co-conspirators.”

(Representatives for U.S. Special Operations Command declined to comment for this story.)

While Benghazi has been an issue that has bitterly divided Democrats and Republicans since the attacks in 2012, none of the officials who spoke to The Daily Beast suspected the timing of the mission this week was political. “This is a great win,” the contractor said. “These kinds of things take a long time, you can’t put this on politics.”

The news of abu-Khatallah’s capture was also welcomed by leading Republicans.

“The world is safer now that Ahmed Abu Khatallah is no longer at liberty, and I congratulate our men and women in uniform for bringing a dangerous terrorist into U.S. Custody,” said Rep. Buck McKeon, the chairman of the Republican House Armed Services Committee. McKeon however stressed that it was “vital” to “fully interrogate” abu Khatallah before allowing him access to a lawyer in order to glean any information he has about terrorist networks in Libya.