The Justice Department has released a new, superseding indictment in the government’s case against Ahmed Abu Khatallah, the only suspect held by the U.S. in connection with the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
The indictment, of course, doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. But we do learn a few new facts, and the indictment raises, again, a key question: What happened to the computers and documents captured by jihadists during the raid on the U.S. Mission and Annex?
There is nothing about the trailer for the video Innocence of Muslims in the indictment. Instead, the “objects and purposes” of the conspiracy to attack the compound included: forcing the U.S. to leave Benghazi “through the use of force and the threat of force,” killing American citizens, and ransacking the property.
The indictment includes another reason for the attack that has received little attention. The jihadists wanted to “plunder property from the Mission and Annex, including documents, maps and computers containing sensitive information.”
At some point, Khatallah learned that there was an “American facility in Benghazi posing as a diplomatic post” and “he believed the facility was actually being used to collect intelligence.” Khatallah “viewed U.S. intelligence actions in Benghazi as illegal” and “he was therefore going to do something about this facility.”
This is, of course, a very different story than the one initially told by the Obama administration. Khatallah and his men were not spontaneously motivated to act because of an obscure Internet video. They knew U.S. intelligence – the CIA – was operating in Benghazi and they wanted to force America’s spooks out. They went hunting.
What was the CIA doing in Benghazi, exactly? There are various theories, some conspiratorial, others based on informed guesswork. But according to U.S. officials contacted by THE WEEKLY STANDARD the CIA was tracking the jihadists, including especially al Qaeda’s men, who had turned eastern Libya into a safehaven. At a minimum, they were collecting intelligence on the terrorists and compiling reports on their activities.
Some of these analyses were referenced in a report prepared by the Senate Intelligence Committee that was published in January of this year. One CIA analysis, entitled “Libya: Al-Qa’ida Establishing Sanctuary,” was dated July 6, 2012 and detailed the presence of several al Qaeda groups in Libya. Those same groups overran the U.S. compound in Benghazi just over two months later.
Khatallah was especially interested in the intelligence the Americans were collecting.
After the initial assault on the compound, “at approximately 11:54 p.m.,” Khatallah “entered the Mission compound and supervised the plunder of material from the Mission’s Office, including documents, maps and computers containing sensitive information about the location of the Annex.”
Shortly after midnight, according to the DOJ’s indictment, Khatallah and his co-conspirators “traveled to an [Ansar al Sharia] camp in Benghazi, along with a vehicle and material stolen from the Mission.” (Khatallah had, months earlier, folded his own fighting brigade into Ansar al Sharia.)
By 12:30 am, the jihadists were attacking the Annex. Several hours later (“at approximately 5:15 am”), according to the DOJ’s timeline, they were using mortars to attack the CIA facility.
The whole indictment reads as if Khatallah’s mission was to sniff out and then strike the CIA’s presence.
What happened to the files and computers Khatallah and other fighters carried with them from the diplomatic Mission to the Ansar al Sharia camp mid-attack? The indictment doesn’t say.
Were any additional materials stolen from the CIA’s Annex? The indictment doesn’t provide any clues.
But the mystery surrounding these “stolen materials” may very well be central to our understanding of the attack – and al Qaeda’s role in it.
As THE WEEKLY STANDARD reported in November 2013, based on conversations with several U.S. intelligence officials, an al Qaeda operative named Faraj al Chalabi (also spelled Faraj al Shibli) “is suspected of delivering sensitive materials from the compound in Benghazi to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan.”