By Spencer S. Hsu
A Libyan informant who was paid $7 million by U.S. authorities to help capture Ahmed Abu Khattala testified that the accused ringleader of the 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi repeatedlyimplicated himself in the assaults that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
Appearing near the end of the government’s sixth week of trial in Washington, the witness, a thickly bearded, 40-year-old Libyan businessman, identified Abu Khattala on surveillance video from the nighttime attack on a U.S. diplomatic post, and testified that Abu Khattala said given the chance, he would have killed even more Americans at the post, at a nearby CIA annex and at Benghazi’s airport.
“I intended then to kill everybody there — even those who were at the airport — if it was not for [the head of Benghazi’s ruling Islamist council] who stopped me,” the informant quoted Abu Khattala telling him in 2013 after another person urged more bloody attacks like those carried out by al-Qaeda of Iraq.
The testimony tying the attacks to Abu Khattala provided a crucial element for the prosecutor’s case against the accused terrorist.
The Libyan informant appeared under the pseudonym of Ali Majrisi to tell the 15-member jury Abu Khattala acknowledged to him that he was a lead U.S. suspect in the Sept. 11-12, 2012, attacks, and kept company with a team of hit-men and “killers.” Abu Khattala also confided in a late-night drive that he was so weary of having so many enemies pursuing him that if captured, he would “talk about everything, all of these people involved in the case of the U.S. embassy.”
U.S. commandos captured Abu Khattala, now 46, in Libya in June 2014 — aided in part by the informant, who over two days of testimony discussed being contacted and later paid for his role in befriending and betraying Abu Khattala.
He acknowledged being paid $7 million as a reward by the Defense and State departments in March 2015 and in 2016, plus more than $100,000 since 2013 in monthly salary and living expenses in Libya and now the United States, at least some of that time in Texas.
As he spoke in Arabic via an English interpreter, Abu Khattala listened stone-faced, stroking his beard.
Abu Khattala has pleaded not guilty to 18 charges including conspiracy to support terrorism, murder, attempted murder and damaging U.S. facilities in the deaths of Stevens and three other Americans.
Abu Khattala’s attorney, assistant federal defender Michelle Peterson, challenged Majrisi’s credibility given his employment and payment by the government.
The informant, who said he had studied information technology at a Canadian university before returning to his native Benghazi, told jurors he became so anxious over his 18-month undercover operation that he offered his unidentified U.S. Defense Department handlers to kill the suspect himself.
“I can be at rest, finally, and my city would be at rest, because this person is a murderer,” the informant said about that offer.
His testimony followed weeks of parsing grainy videos and wrangling over cellphone records, and capped a prosecution case that included damaging testimony from three Libyans, all appearing under fake names, to tie Abu Khattala to violence described dramatically at trial by CIA and State Department security operators who survived.
Majrisi also named a second suspect who was captured on Oct. 29 of this year and brought to Washington: Mustafa al-Imam. Majrisi identified him in court in surveillance video, and an FBI agent had testified last week Abu Khattala, while in custody, had also named al-Imam.
Under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney John Crabb, Jr., Majrisi said he had fought with revolutionaries against Moammar Gaddafi’s regime and administered a post-revolutionary Benghazi governing coalition.
At the end of 2012, he was approached by Americans he identified only as reporting to the U.S. defense secretary for help identifying suspects in the attacks. He agreed to become an informant, he said, because of U.S. assistance in the revolution and because he is “against extremism, and I try and do everything in any way to help my city.”
Asked what information he collected about Abu Khattala, he replied, “Everything.”
Prosecutors acknowledged that Majrisi’s interactions with his U.S. handlers before Abu Khattala’s capture were not recorded in a manner that could be shared with his defense team due to the secret nature of the exchanges.
Without that first-hand information, the defense will explore limited, declassified summaries, cables and documents next week when it presents its case.
Majrisi also acknowledged that he was the person who lured Abu Khattala to the seaside villa where he was captured in a nighttime raid.After turning over the defendant, the witness said his own handgun was taken, and he was told, “Go your way,” he testified. He drove away, was handed an installment of $40,000 by U.S. officials in Tripoli, and left from Tunisia for a third country that day.
The informant said he asked for an introduction to Abu Khattala, who knew him through the revolution and as “a successful businessman.” Abu Khattala “was always requiring the kind of . . . financial support,” he could provide.
The witness said Abu Khattala kept mortar shells and a shoulder-fired missile launcher in a garage, and suggested piles of papers, folders and old computers in his private quarters came from the attacks because they enabled him to “personally” know “all of these field leaders who visited the U.S. ambassador.”
As planned by the Americans, the informant bought the villa and gave it Abu Khattala as a “safe haven” from his life on the run.
Top Photo: On trial for the 2012 Benghazi attacks on U.S. facilities in Libya, Ahmed Abu Khattala is shown in a courtroom sketch listening to a translation of an opening statement Oct. 2. (Dana Verkouteren/AP)
Spencer S. Hsu is an investigative reporter, two-time Pulitzer finalist and national Emmy award nominee. Hsu has covered homeland security, immigration, Virginia politics and Congress.