WASHINGTON - In a secret raid in Libya, Special Operations forces of the United States captured one of the suspected ringleaders of the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, in which the U.S. ambassador was killed.
According to a news report in the Washington Post on Tuesday, Ahmed Abu Khattala was captured over the weekend following months of planning and was now in the "US custody in a secure location outside Libya".
Khattala's apprehension is a major victory for the Obama administration, which has been criticized for having failed so far to bring those responsible for the Benghazi attacks to justice, the Post said.
Last year, charges were filed in the US courts against Khattala and at least a dozen others in connection with the Benghazi attacks. None besides Khattala - who is expected to be arraigned in Washington - has been apprehended. Officials said Khattala was "en route" to the United States, but would not say when he was expected to arrive.
The State Department designated Khattala a terrorist in January, calling him a "senior leader" of the Benghazi branch of the militant organization Ansar al-Sharia, a group that arose after the 2010 fall of the Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi.
Ansar al-Sharia was also designated a terrorist organisation and held specifically responsible for the Sept. 11, 2012, assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi that left U.S. Ambassador to Libya Mr J. Christopher Stevens and State Department security official Mr Sean Smith dead.
Two CIA contractors, Tyrone S. Woods and Glen Doherty, were killed in a mortar attack at a nearby CIA annex where the attackers moved after overtaking the diplomatic compound.
Last October, commandos from the Army's elite Delta Force, along with members of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team, carried out a similar raid in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and abducted Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai,who is accused of participating in the 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in East Africa. Ruqai, also known as Anas al-Libi, is currently awaiting trial in New York.
"We have made clear to successive Libyan governments our intention to bring to justice the perpetrators of the attack on our facilities in Benghazi," an official said on condition of anonymity.
Failure to make arrests in the Benghazi case was seen as an enormous frustration for the FBI, and a subject of sharp criticism from lawmakers. Within weeks of the attacks, and sporadically thereafter, Khattala was interviewed by American reporters in the open in Benghazi, where he said he did not participate in the initial assault on the Benghazi compound but came on the scene as it was ending.
Believed to be in his 40s, Khattala was imprisoned for many years by the Gaddafi regime for his Islamic views.
The FBI believes other groups were also involved in the Benghazi attacks and is pursuing criminal charges against several individuals.