Under a nearly full moon, a small boat pulled away from the Libyan coastline.
A bearded man sat on board, masked, handcuffed and gagged until out of shouting range of land. After 20 minutes, armed guards lowered him into a shallow pit in the deck of a second vessel to guard against his falling overboard on the final choppy, 100-minute sprint to their destination: a US warship waiting in the Mediterranean Sea.
There, Ahmed Abu Khattala began a 13-day trip crossing the Atlantic Ocean that would end in a US courtroom.
The suspected ringleader of the Benghazi terrorist attacks was taken to a specially constructed brig aboard the USS New York on June 16, 2014, at 4:19 a.m. Libya time, according to the log for the ship’s detention center.
Interrogations began four minutes later, at 4:23 a.m.
The events surrounding the capture of Abu Khattala, accused as the mastermind of the lethal attacks in Benghazi that killed a US ambassador and three other Americans, are emerging with rare detail in testimony and records in an ongoing federal court case in Washington.
Abu Khattala’s lawyers want his statements to FBI investigators thrown out, arguing that his capture and detention in a windowless room below deck were coercive and render meaningless the many waivers he signed giving up his right to an attorney and his right to not incriminate himself.
He has pleaded not guilty to charges including murder.
Prosecutors contend that Abu Khattala never explicitly asked for a lawyer and implicated himself as a conspirator when he cooperated.
The case could mark the first time a federal judge rules on the constitutionality of interrogation practices developed in recent years for terrorism suspects captured overseas.
The judge’s scrutiny will go to the heart of a question that has not been settled since the rise of the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba: Can the government successfully flip a legal switch during interrogations and move from military tactics to the safeguards needed for a speedy and fair trial in civilian court?
The case also arises as the Trump administration pledges to step up actions against foreign terrorists, including ISIS fighters, raising the prospect that a ruling on Abu Khattala’s questioning could affect the handling of future detainee issues.
US District Judge Christopher R. “Casey” Cooper is due to rule on Abu Khattala’s statements before the Libyan’s trial, scheduled for September.
Brian Egan, a senior White House and State Department legal adviser during the Obama administration, called the Abu Khattala matter “a real test case” in which “the government consciously designed the capture and interrogation around being able to withstand legal challenges.”
Abu Khattala, who is being held in the Alexandria, Va., city jail, has pleaded not guilty to 18 charges in the Sept. 11 and 12, 2012, attacks in Benghazi.
The final plans for Abu Khattala’s capture had been set for nearly a year, according to a timeline described in court by an FBI agent who was told in late 2013 to get ready to join what became an eight-man, military-led capture team that grabbed Abu Khattala from his southern Benghazi villa.
The agent, who testified only under the last name “Johnson,” said the team expected violent resistance from Abu Khattala, an auto mechanic nearly 6 feet tall and 230 pounds who was known to carry a handgun and possibly a grenade.
They seized him at about midnight June 16 in Libya in a struggle that left him with a two-inch cut to his head and evidence of blows around his eyes and a wrist.
About three hours later, after rides in small boats that were “special, somewhat expensive and delicate,” a crane hoisted Abu Khattala onto the warship, still shackled, masked and with headphones that cut sounds.
The mask came off in the detention center, a row of four identical 8-by-7-foot cells plus a latrine linked by a corridor. A plywood barrier and black, noise-blocking tarp encased the detention center to hide tipoffs that the holding cells were on a ship.
Army guards in camouflage uniforms stripped of name tapes and identifying patches told Abu Khattala that he could address them with only two words — “bathroom” or “water,” said Army Staff Sgt. Dylan Peterson, the sergeant of the guard.
Abu Khattala was read and shown a copy of his Geneva Conventions rights in English and Arabic and was seen by an Army doctor who was part of the mission, government witnesses said. They said he was told to report any abuse and directed to change into an orange shirt and pants and sneakers.
He was given a Koran and a blanket and could sit or sleep on a bare floor. And he was told that a rough, hand-drawn compass on the wall pointed to Mecca for his prayers.
(The Washington Post)