Posted on June 28, 2014 at 3:15 PM
Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Nearly two weeks after his capture in Libya, a key suspect in the 2012 deadly attack on the American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi pleaded not guilty to criminal charges during his first federal court appearance Saturday.
Ahmed Abu Khatallah, an alleged senior leader of the Benghazi branch of the terror group Ansar al-Sharia, had been detained and questioned on a U.S. warship and was transported to be prosecuted in a D.C. federal court, where security was heightened Saturday.
Khatallah — who faces criminal charges in the deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans — appeared in court at 3:30 Saturday, the U.S. attorney's office said in a statement.
Earlier Saturday, Khatallah was transported from the Navy vessel by helicopter and into law enforcement custody, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to comment publicly on the matter.
Authorities said Khatallah had become more careful in recent months to conceal his movements, perhaps related to last fall's capture of alleged al-Qaeda operative Anas al-Libi in Tripoli. American forces seized Khatallah on June 15 just south of Benghazi in an operation that also involved U.S. law enforcement officials.
A criminal complaint filed in Washington accused Khatallah of "killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility involving the use of a firearm and dangerous weapon." It charged him with "providing, attempting and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, resulting in death" at Benghazi.
Khatallah is described by some terror analysts as a man stridently anti-U.S. who has been aligned with the Ansar al-Shariah militia group, suspected in the consulate attack.
However, he has repeatedly denied involvement in the attacks in interviews with several news organizations and appeared content to live in the open in the weeks after the attacks, even though he was being eyed as a target.
"I am a Libyan citizen, and the American government has nothing to do with me," Khatallah told the Associated Press last year. "I am in my city, having a normal life and have no troubles, and if they have an inquiry to make, they should get in touch with Libyan authorities."
Saturday afternoon, at the E.Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse, where Khatallah is expected to make his first appearance, security was noticeably bolstered. Heavily armed U.S. marshals were posted around the property just a short distance from the Capitol. Patrol vehicles, meanwhile, made regular passes on the perimeter as curious tourists looked on from Constitution Avenue.