WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors opened their case against Ahmed Abu Khatallah on Monday by telling jurors he orchestrated the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Khatallah has been awaiting trial since 2014, when he was captured by a team of U.S. military and FBI officials in Libya and transported on a 13-day journey to the United States aboard a Navy vessel.
In his opening statement, federal prosecutor John Crabb said Khatallah hates America “with a vengeance” and played a leading role in organizing the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
Khatallah “didn’t do the killing by himself,” he said. “He didn’t light the fires and he didn’t fire the mortars but you will hear he is just as guilty as the men who lit those fires.”
Khatallah, who faces charges including murder and providing material support to terrorists, sat at the table wearing a white shirt and headphones that allowed him to hear an Arabic translation of the proceedings.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Robinson denied that his client had anything to do with the planning of the attack.
“The evidence is going to show that Mr. Abu Khatallah did not participate in the attack,” he said.
The Benghazi attack led to a political fire storm in Washington, where Republicans repeatedly accused then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of failing to adequately protect the diplomatic compound.
Crabb told the jury they would hear from witnesses who heard Khatallah discuss his plans and complain that Americans were operating a “spy base” in Benghazi.
One witness, who was later paid $7 million to help the United States lure Khatallah to the spot where he was captured, will tell jurors he heard the defendant say he “would have killed all of the Americans that night,” Crabb said.
Crabb also showed the jury grainy video footage from the night of the attack, including images of more than a half-dozen other suspects whom he described as Khatallah’s associates.
Khatallah appeared in one video, as armed militia entered a room that housed closely guarded maps and other records.
Robinson called those statements into question, saying his client went to the mission to see what was happening and warned people to steer clear of the gunfire.
He also said some of the government’s witnesses “are people who lie” and that his client’s statements to the FBI were never recorded and may have been incorrectly translated.