Frappe-Sipping Suspect in Benghazi Attack Unimpressed with US Vow of Revenge

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: This afternoon in Washington the State Department condemned the bombing in Beirut. A spokesperson said the U.S. has no information about who carried out the attack though. American investigators do have some ideas about who carried out a different attack — the one on Benghazi, Libya, last September 11. That's when the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed by militants who opened fire on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Among the prime suspects is Libyan militia leader named Ahmed Abu Khattala. You'd think he'd be in hiding but yesterday Khattala was relaxing in a luxury Benghazi hotel having drinks with two reporters. One of the journalists who met him is New York Times correspondent David Kirkpatrick.

David Kirkpatrick: He met us at a rather stylish hotel by the standards of Benghazi but right near the Mediterranean and we sat outside on a patio. He ordered some juice and ended up drinking a strawberry frappe and I had a cappuccino.

Werman: Wow. Who is Abu Khattala?

Kirkpatrick: He is a mechanic by trade and an Islamist who spent ten years in jail for his religious and political convictions under Col. Gaddafi. He fought in the uprising against Col. Gaddafi but after that has been associate with a kind of aligned group known as Ansar al-Shariah. Of course, what we're all interested in right now is that witnesses have told us and have told the U.S. government that they've seen him leading fighters in the attack on the American diplomatic mission here that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

Werman: Has the FBI questioned him?

Kirkpatrick: The FBI has not questioned him and he says no one has questioned him. He is at large and at ease and comfortable here in Benghazi.

Werman: Why has nobody questioned him?

Kirkpatrick: Who is it who would come to his door and take him to the station for questioning? The other big militias around here who usually do the work of the government have declined, requiring more evidence and I think what we're seeing is some reluctance on their part to turn on a neighbor and a former comrade from the front lines.

Werman: So, it's kind of a complicated narrative that you recount in your story of what Abu Khattala was doing on the night of September 11 when the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was attacked. Can you sum up for us just what is know right now about his relationship to the attack?

Kirkpatrick: The way he tells it he showed up after the shooting had started, after what began as a peaceful protest against this American made video, online video, mocking the prophet Mohammed, had started to get out of hand and in his account it got out of hand mainly because guards inside the compound were shooting out at the demonstrators. Also, in his account he then was trying to break up a traffic jam, fled the scene when militia were firing in the air, and later entered the compound only to try to help some Libyan guards who were stuck inside get out. None of this really holds up. We're pretty sure there as no peaceful protest, the shooting started from outside, and virtually began with a rocket propelled grenade and by the time he would have been back to rescue the Libyan guards the compound was already on fire which he says he doesn't remember. So, his account of these events is not entirely persuasive.

Werman: To me the most striking thing about your account is the casualness with which this potentially dangerous person was just hanging out in Benghazi; still is.

Kirkpatrick: I'll admit that when I flew here yesterday morning I did not expect him to meet with me. I thought he would think better of it. I thought like a lot of Libyan Islamists he would suspect that an American journalist was a spy and a small part of me thought that if he did meet with me he might want to take me as a hostage but none of those things were true.

Werman: The impunity with which he kind of is there in Benghazi and in his red fez, I mean isn't that just going to invite the heat on him?

Kirkpatrick: What heat? You know, I think there's a small group of American FBI agents huddled in the American Embassy in Tripoli but I don't think the FBI investigators have spent more than 12 hours in Benghazi because of how they view the safety situation here.

Werman: Since you're there what is the most worrying thing for you about which way Libya is headed right now?

Kirkpatrick: Well, this is a wonderful opportunity for me to say something that I haven't been able to say in the paper and that is when I'm here the overwhelming sensation is you know it's not that bad. This is a country with no police, no military, effectively no government, and really remarkably the people have organized themselves into local brigades and they're doing a pretty darn good job of keeping the peace. I mean the social fabric is holding together remarkably well. I sometimes wonder what it would be like in my hometown of Buffalo, New York, if all the police immediately vanished. Would we be able to form up into local militias and brigades and keep the peace, and police the streets at night? I'm not sure we would. They're really in that light doing quite okay here. You know, this group, Ansar al-Shariah, is for sure radical and Mr. Abu Khattala is for sure radical, but among the Libyan militias he's really a minority.

Werman: New York Times correspondent David Kirkpatrick speaking with us from Benghazi. Thank you so much.

Kirkpatrick: It's a pleasure.