A Libyan militia leader who was convicted for participating in the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in 2012 was sentenced to 22 years in prison on Wednesday.
Ahmed Abu Khattala, 47, was convicted in November on charges including conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists for his role in the attack, which killed four Americans, including U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens.
However, the jury acquitted Khattala of more serious charges of murder and attempted murder, after defense lawyers cast doubt that his actions led directly to the deaths of Stevens and State Department information officer Sean Smith on Sept 11, 2012.
Before handing down the sentence, U.S. District Court Judge Christopher R. Cooper acknowledged the defense’s claim that the jury had found reasonable doubt to believe Khattala was not directly responsible for the killings — in part because surveillance video showed him arriving at the consulate after the attack was mostly over.
But Cooper added that jurors had likely determined Khattala was a key figure in plotting the attack, even he himself did not set the fires at the consulate or participate in a follow-on attack that killed CIA security contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty at the agency’s Benghazi annex. (RELATED: ‘All Hell Broke Loose’: CIA Officers Give Emotional Testimony At Benghazi Trial)
Abu Khattala “did not himself set the fires at the Mission that killed Ambassador Stevens and Sean Patrick Smith, but … it is more likely than not that he agreed with several other participants to launch an armed attack on the Mission, and the attack foreseeably resulted in deaths that furthered the ends of the conspiracy,” he wrote in a pre-sentencing opinion, according to the Washington Post.
Wednesday’s sentence concludes one of many chapters in the six-year saga of the Benghazi attack, which became a political controversy almost as soon as the fires at the consulate stopped burning. Republicans accused then-President Barack Obama’s administration of failing to protect American diplomats and trying to the obscure the truth about what had happened, while Democrats claimed that Republicans were using the tragedy to attack the president in the run-up to the 2012 election.
Those political manipulations fell by the wayside in Cooper’s courtroom, as family members of the victims awaited a sentence that would give them some measure of closure. Woods’ widow, Dorothy, addressed the court before sentencing and asked the judge to give Khattala a life sentence that would let Americans fighting terrorism overseas know “that I got your [back].”
“Your honor, your sentencing sends a message to the men and women on the front lines of the war on terror,” she added, according to Courthouse News Service.
Khattala’s prosecution was widely seen as a test of the government’s ability to capture terrorist leaders overseas and bring them to the U.S. to stand trial in a civilian court. The mixed verdict illustrated the difficulty of collecting evidence and testimony from a war zone environment that would hold up in court, a challenge that could play a role in the Trump administration’s pursuit of similar cases in the future.
The Justice Department is also prosecuting one of Khattala’s alleged associates, Mustafa al-Imam, who was captured in October and subsequently brought to Washington. He has pleaded not guilty.
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