BENGHAZI Libya (Reuters) - The suspected
ringleader of a 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, snatched
this week by U.S. forces, had been fighting a Libyan general committed
to root out Islamist rebels when he vanished without trace, according to
"The family was in contact with him on Saturday and Sunday. I was
told that he drove away with a friend on Sunday and that was the
last we heard of him," said the brother of Ahmed Abu Khatallah, who
was seized by U.S. special forces and spirited out of the country to
an American naval ship.
The United States, which lost four officials including Ambassador
Chris Stevens in the 2012 attack, has given few details of the
operation in an area where Tripoli struggles to assert its rule - a
reflection of the chaos in the oil producer three years after the
ouster of Muammar Gaddafi.
Abu Khatallah's brother Abu Bakr told Reuters in an interview that
past U.S. operations suggested Libyans must have helped the
Americans find and capture him during the chaos of fighting around
the port city of one million.
Sunday was a perfect day for U.S. commandos to slip in unnoticed -
the city was a battlefield for much of the day.
"Residents told me they saw two helicopters near the coast in
Qanfuda," Abu Bakr Khatallah said. He had tried calling all his
brother's friends. "Their phones are off."
The family later found the car abandoned in Qanfuda, a town some 10
km west Benghazi. U.S. officials say only that the grab took place
on Sunday outside Libya's second-largest city.
Barack Obama announced the operation only on Tuesday. It was widely
seen as a victory for the U.S. president who has been accused by
Republicans of playing down the role of al Qaeda in 2012 attacks for
political reasons and of being slow in bringing perpetrators to
Washington says Khatallah will go on trial in the United States. His
brother says it will only prove his innocence.
Ahmed told Reuters in October 2012 he had been at the consulate
during the attack but only helped divert traffic.
The east of Libya is the scene of daily battles.
Renegade general Khalifa Haftar had launched an offensive, moving in
armor and trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns to attack suspected
camps of militant Islamists, part of a campaign to tackle militants
started last month.
With shells exploding several parts of the city, frightened
residents stayed indoors. Much of the city was plunged into darkness
at night after rockets had hit a power plant.
"I am convinced he was taken with the help of Libyans," Abu Bakr
When U.S. forces launched a similar operation in Tripoli in October
against Abu Anas al-Liby, wanted for involvement in the 1998
bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, residents said
people speaking Libyan Arabic had been involved.
Khatallah had denied in a Reuters interview in October 2012 that he
was a leader of Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist group Washington
accuses of carrying out the assault on the consulate.
But his brother Abu Bakr said he had joined the battle against
Haftar whose troops, beyond the command of Tripoli, have launched
several attacks on suspected Islamist bases.
"He was against (Haftar's) operation dignity and joined the battle
against Haftar," he said, without giving details.
The U.S. raid came at a critical time for the weak government
preparing for elections next week. Under pressure from Islamists and
militias which helped oust Gaddafi but now carve out fiefdoms,
Tripoli has denounced the arrest as kidnapping and an attack on its
The U.S. had considered grabbing Khatallah after the October raid
that scooped Liby, U.S. officials told Reuters. But that raid caused
uproar. A militia briefly kidnapped then Prime Minister Ali Zeidan
accusing him of having known of the action. Going after Khatallah
was then deemed impractical.
Born in 1971 in Benghazi, Abu Khatallah grew up in the Lithi
district, an area with potholed roads and buildings where the
painting is crumbling from walls, typical for a city neglected for
decades by Gaddafi.
Khatallah, whose father was a soccer player for Benghazi clubs,
dropped out of high school before he opened a car garage, according
to his brother. He later worked for construction firms and also
briefly for the health ministry.
While Khatallah has denied any role in Ansar Sharia there is no
doubt he grew up in a religious family - five of six sisters were
trained in recitation of the Holy Muslim Quran. One of them opened a
religious school for girls.
He said his brother had spent between 1995 and 2010 a total of ten
years in jail under Gaddafi. "He was charged for belonging to an
armed group," said Abu Bakr.
This is impossible to verify as many public records were destroyed
during the 2011 uprising but several militia leaders spent time in
jail under the former strongman. A prominent example is Ibrahim
Jathran who helped oust Gaddafi but has seized major oil ports to
press Tripoli into regional autonomy.
When the NATO-backed uprising against Gaddafi in Libya broke out
Ahmed joined on the fourth day, his brother said.
Abu Khatalllah, who is not married, formed the Obeidah al-Jarrah
militia, which was blamed for the killing of Abdel Fattah Younes, a
former Gaddafi loyalist who had defected to the rebels. Hardline
rebels were never happy to serve under a man who had been so close
Abu Bakr said ex-premier Zeidan had asked the special forces
commander in Benghazi, Wanis Bukhamada, to get him but the latter
told him he didn't have strong enough forces.
"We don't have a government or a state," he said.
(additional reporting by Ulf Laessing and Feras Bosalum in Tripoli
and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by)