An armed man waving his rifle as buildings and cars are engulfed in flames after being set on fire inside the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. (Getty Images)
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The Libyan militant charged in the 2012 Benghazi attack pleaded not guilty to a federal terrorism charge Saturday before U.S. District judge in his first court appearance on U.S. soil.
Ahmed Abu Khattala entered his plea on the conspiracy charge at the heavily guarded federal courthouse in Washington, D.C.
A one-count grand jury indictment says Abu Khattala took part in a conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists in the 2012 attacks that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The charge carries a maximum punishment of life in prison, but Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Michael DiLorenzo told the court that additional charges were expected to be filed.
The government’s three-count criminal complaint against Khattalah, unsealed after he was captured, includes one count of causing the death of an American in a federal building, which is punishable by the death penalty.
In court, he wore a two-piece black track suit and kept his hands behind his back. He looked impassively at Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola for most of a 10-minute court hearing.
Abu Khattala was flown by a military helicopter from a Navy ship to Washington earlier Saturday.
U.S. special forces captured Abu Khattala in Libya two weeks ago, marking the first breakthrough in the investigation of the Benghazi attacks.
U.S. officials had been questioning Abu Khattala aboard the Navy amphibious transport dock ship that brought him to the United States.
Abu Khattala, who charged with terrorism-related crimes, may face a judge as soon as Saturday for an initial court appearance at which the government would outline the charges against him. He almost certainly would remain in detention while the Justice Department sought a federal grand jury indictment against him.
The prosecution will be a further test of the Obama administration’s commitment to try suspected terrorists in the American criminal justice system even as Republicans in Congress call for Abu Khatallah and others to be held at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The violence on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon quickly became a political flashpoint. Republicans accused the White House, as the 2012 presidential election neared, of intentionally misleading the public about what prompted the attacks. The White House accused Republicans of politicizing a national tragedy.
Abu Khattala, a prominent figure in Benghazi’s circles of extremists who was popular among young radicals, acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press in January that he was present during the storming of the U.S. mission in Benghazi. But he denied involvement in the attack, saying he was trying to organize a rescue of trapped people.
In the attack, gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades and stormed the mission, with many waving the black banners of Ansar al-Shariah, a powerful Islamic militia.
The compound’s main building was set ablaze. Ambassador Chris Stevens suffocated to death inside and another American was shot dead. Later in the evening, gunmen attacked and shelled a safe house, killing two more Americans.
At the time, several witnesses said they saw Abu Khattala directing fighters at the site.
No evidence has emerged that Abu Khattala was involved in the later attack on the safe house.
Abu Khattala is one of just a few cases in which the administration has captured a suspected terrorist overseas and interrogated him for intelligence purposes before bringing him to federal court to face charges.
Those cases include Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who was arrested in Jordan in March 2013 and turned over to U.S. agents. A jury in New York City convicted him in March of conspiring to kill Americans.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed.
Posted on Newsmax