Trial of alleged ringleader of Benghazi attack begins in Washington

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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.

Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, smiles at his home in Tripoli June 28, 2012. Stevens and three embassy staff were killed late on September 11, 2012, as they rushed away from a consulate building in Benghazi, stormed by al Qaeda-linked gunmen blaming America for a film that they said insulted the Prophet Mohammad. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

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 in U.S. District court for the District of Columbia, 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, he said, “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 face 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.

Monday’s session included harrowing testimony from Special Agent Scott Wickland, who described how he tried to get Stevens and State Department staffer Sean Smith to safety as they crawled on their bellies through thick, black smoke as fire engulfed the mission.

“At first I had my hand on the ambassador and we were crawling,” he recalled.

“I was breathing through the last centimeter of air on the ground... and I am yelling to the other guys, ‘Come on! We can make it!”

“And within that 8 meters, they disappeared.”

Crabb, the prosecutor, also previewed some of the other testimony the jury will hear from witnesses who claim they heard Khatallah discuss his involvement in the attack.

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 grainy video footage from the night of the attack with images of more than a half-dozen suspected associates of Khatallah.

Khatallah appeared in one video as armed militia entered a room that held closely guarded maps and other records.

Robinson said his client went to the mission only 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.”

The trial, which resumes on Tuesday, is expected to last several weeks.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Dan Grebler