The capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala on June 15 was received with cautious relief in Tripoli. A 1990s prisoner under Muammar Gaddafi’s rule and a former ally of Ansar al-Sharia, a Salafist group, Khattala has been mostly viewed as an unwanted revolutionary figure who manipulated the instability of post-Gaddafi Libya to create chaos.
Abu Khattala, a suspect in the September 11, 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, is now being held in an unknown secured location outside of Libya.
Libyan government spokesman Ahmed al-Amin told Al Jazeera by phone that the Libyan interim government did not have any knowledge of the arrest, which was carried out by US Special Forces.
Later, foreign ministry spokesman Said Lassoued released a statement saying: “The government condemns this regrettable infringement on Libya’s sovereignty.”
In a 2012 interview with the New York Times, Abu Khattala, denied sanctioning or leading the attack, but said he understood the anger which fuelled it.
The capture came at a time when anti-Islamist public sentiments are reportedly on the rise. According to observers, however, such sentiments are new.
During the popular uprising in 2011 and the months that followed, figures like Abu Khattala and his comrades were seen as heroes.
Now they are being viewed with distrust and some even hold them responsible for “ruining the dream of having a civilised Libyan state”, according to one observer.
Khaled Idrissi, a Libyan Salafi and a member of the Libyan National Army from Benghazi, met with Abu Khattala a couple of times last year and holds a different opinion of him. “Ahmed Khattala wasn’t seen outdoors very often and he preferred seclusion. He was known to be a leader in his community, with many rumours of him being a notorious man. I didn’t feel this when I talked to him.”
Abdelsatar Khattala, an expert on Islamic Khattala groups, believes the capture was part of a larger coordinated, international effort. “I believe there is international coordination among several US and Western countries together with Arab countries to track terrorist activities inside Libya,” he said.
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Barak Barfi, a research fellow at the New America Foundation, said the operation was a clear message that: “The US administration lost all confidence in the ability of the General National Congress (GNC) to extend control outside of Tripoli, and that’s why they deployed Delta Force to capture Abu Khatalla. This case has been sitting on the desks in Washington for over a year now, and the US was just waiting for the right time to capture him,” Barfi said.
Asked about the role played by Khalifa Heftar’s militia in the capture of Abu Khatalla, Barfi said: “At the moment, I don’t believe that he has the resources to do so, but he might have provided some intelligence information in the past.”
In January, Washington designated Abu Khattala, Sufian bin Qumo, and the leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, Saifullah bin Hussein, also known as Abu Ayad, as international terrorists and placed them on a watch list.
According to a Libyan government source who did not want to be identified, “Abu Khattala is just one name on a long list of suspected terrorists.”
Additional reporting by Sherif Elhelwa