BENGHAZI, Libya – The militia commander who led the deadly raid on the U.S. mission in Benghazi is an Islamist and former political prisoner whose fighters were also blamed for assassinating a senior military officer after he defected to the opposition during last year’s revolution against Moammar Gadhafi, a senior Libyan official said.
FBI agents have been shown a cellphone picture of the commander at the scene of the attack, according to Libyans familiar with the investigation. But it is unclear where the man, identified as Ahmed Abu Khattala, is now, and militias loyal to the government say they have received no orders to arrest him or any other suspect in connection with the attack.
In a contentious exchange with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on Tuesday night, President Barack Obama reiterated his pledge to bring the attackers to justice. But the chaos in Libya after the fall of Gadhafi creates daunting obstacles.
With the army and police forces yet to be rebuilt, the government depends on a patchwork of militias to maintain security. Although many of the largest armed groups are allied with the government, authorities are reluctant to order a local militia to move against the attackers for fear of inflaming rivalries – or having their orders refused.
Sending in a militia from 400 miles away in Tripoli risks exacerbating tensions between Libya’s eastern and western regions. And even though Libya’s weak central government is pro-American, unilateral U.S. military action would invite a backlash.
A senior Libyan official on Wednesday identified the commander in the cellphone photo taken by a witness to the attack as Abu Khattala, who founded a militia of former prisoners called the Abu Obeida brigade. That group was blamed for the assassination of Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis, Gadhafi’s former interior minister, who defected to the rebels and had become one of their senior military commanders.
The killing of Younis in eastern Libya in July 2011 was an indication of tensions within rebel ranks and a harbinger of the disarray still plaguing the country. No one was charged in his death, but Libyans speculated that Abu Khattala could have ordered it as retribution for his treatment while in Gadhafi’s infamous Abu Salim prison.
“He is the one who is responsible” for leading attackers on the U.S. mission, said the Libyan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing the ongoing investigation.
Some experts believe the Abu Obeida brigade is now part of Ansar al Sharia, an Islamist militia and social organization that disappeared from Benghazi after it was targeted in popular protests against the attack. U.S. officials reportedly intercepted communications from members of Ansar al Sharia bragging about the attack to al-Qaida affiliates in North Africa.
“All of these rogue Islamist brigades swim in the same small pool” in Libya, said Frederic Wehrey, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Abu Khattala’s whereabouts were unknown, but the Libyan official said he’s probably still in Benghazi or elsewhere in eastern Libya.
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