The Libyan militant accused of masterminding the deadly 2012 Benghazi attacks that have become a flashpoint in US politics has appeared in an American courtroom, pleading not guilty to a terrorism-related charge nearly two weeks after he was captured by special forces.
A federal grand jury formally charged Ahmed Abu Khatallah during the rare Saturday session on a single charge of conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists for the attacks that killed US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans two-years-ago.
Abu Khatallah is due back in the court, located just 1.6km from the White House, on Wednesday for a detention hearing, and again on July 8 for a status hearing.
He was flown to Washington by helicopter shortly after sunrise from a US Navy warship where he had been held and interrogated since his high-profile capture two weeks ago, a law enforcement official told AFP.
The suspect, believed to be 43 and also known as Ahmed Mukatallah, listened to the court proceedings through an interpreter and raised his right hand.
Public defender Shelli Peterson entered a not guilty plea on his
Wearing a dark tracksuit, Abu Khatallah had a long, dark grey beard and moustache with curly hair, court sketches showed. He was not handcuffed.
The Justice Department has charged Abu Khattalah with three counts in connection with the attacks that saw gunmen storm the US mission in Benghazi and set it on fire.
A CIA annex was also targeted in the attacks that shocked Washington, quickly growing into a highly charged political issue.
The case’s lead prosecutor warned that the Justice Department could bring additional charges against Abu Khatallah during the ongoing investigation.
The US State Department has identified Khatallah as a senior leader of Ansar al-Sharia, a Libyan “terrorist” group responsible for a spate of attacks and assassinations.
US commandos captured Khatallah – who could face the death penalty – earlier this month in a covert raid on Libyan soil.
Special forces, working with FBI agents, carried out the stealth operation to seize Khatallah under cover of darkness and withdrew without losses. Libya has accused Washington of violating its sovereignty.
The raid two weeks ago represented a victory for President Barack Obama, who has faced intense criticism over his administration’s handling of the Benghazi assault and its aftermath.
The Benghazi attack raised questions about security at US diplomatic facilities worldwide and the assessment of militant threats. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton faced hostile questioning by lawmakers over the issue.
Republicans alleged that the White House failed to respond decisively and then tried to hide some facts in the grisly episode