Prosecutors and defense lawyers gave starkly different portrayals on Monday of Ahmed Abu Khattala, the alleged mastermind of the 2012 attacks on U.S. outposts in Benghazi, Libya, that killed ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
A government lawyer said that when Abu Khattala's hatred of America boiled over, he orchestrated the attacks and then triumphantly strode around the attack site carrying an AK-47. Assistant U.S. attorney John Crabb said that later, the defendant was heard at his apartment saying: "I attacked the American embassy" and would have killed more Americans that night if others had not intervened.
A defense attorney, on the other hand, called Abu Khattala a "Libyan patriot," who fought on America's side in the war against Libyan leader Moammar Gadafi. He said Abu Khattala didn't mastermind the attack. The lawyer said the defendant simply went to the attack site because he heard there was a protest and wanted to see what was happening.
"He didn't shoot anyone. He didn't set any fires. He did not participate in the attacks," said Jeffrey Robinson, a lawyer for Abu Khattala.
Twelve jurors and three alternates listened as opening statements unfolded in one of the most significant terrorism prosecutions in recent years. The trial is being held in U.S. District Court in Washington — a civilian federal court — at a time when the Trump administration has said terror suspects are better sent to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Abu Khattala, sporting a long grayish-white beard, appeared in court wearing a white shirt and dark pants. He has pleaded not guilty to his charges, including murder of an internationally protected person, providing material support to terrorists and destroying U.S. property while causing death. When he entered the courtroom, he shook hands with members of his legal team. He monitored his trial with earphones offering him an Arabic interpreter. At times, he sipped water or swiveled in his chair at the defense table.
An 18-count indictment against Abu Khattala arises from a burst of violence that began the night of Sept. 11, 2012, at a State Department compound, a rampage prosecutors say was aimed at killing American personnel and plundering maps, documents and other property from the post.
Stevens was killed in the first attack at the U.S. mission, along with Sean Patrick Smith, a State Department information management officer. Nearly eight hours later at a CIA complex nearby, two more Americans, contract security officers Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, died in a mortar attack.
Stevens and Smith "choked to death by thick black smoke," Crabb said. Woods and Doherty were "blown apart by mortar," he said. He said Abu Khattala "hates America with a vengeance" and that his "hatred simmered until it boiled over."
"He killed Ambassador Stevens — a man of peace."