Jury acquits Libyan of most serious charges in Benghazi attack, convicts on others

This courtroom sketch shows Ahmed Abu Khattala, third from right, listening to an interpreter through earphones during the opening statement by his defense attorney Jeffery Robinson in federal court in Washington Monday, Oct. 2, 2017. Khattala, the suspected mastermind of the 2012 attacks on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, is on trial. Also depicted are members of the defense team Cole Lutermilch, left, and Michelle Peterson, second from right. (Dana Verkouteren via AP)

WASHINGTON (NBC) — A federal court jury here found a Libyan man guilty Tuesday of playing a role in the infamous terrorist attack on a U.S. government compound in Benghazi, Libya. But he was acquitted of charges that his actions lead to the deaths of four Americans.

Five years after the Sept. 11, 2012, raid that killed a U.S. ambassador, Ahmed Abu Khatallah was found guilty of helping to plan and carry it out. It is the first conviction to stem from the deadly attack.

Prosecutors said Khatallah was among 20 people who stormed the U.S. mission with machine guns and grenade launchers, set it on fire, and later attacked an annex, killing US. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans — Glen Doherty, Sean Smith, and Tyrone Woods.

But in a big setback to prosecutors, the jury found Khatallah not guilty on charges that his actions led to the deaths of the Americans.

Of 18 counts in the federal indictment, he was convicted of four: destroying U.S. government property, discharging a firearm during a violent crime, and two counts of providing support to a terror organization.

Tipped off by a local informant, a team of U.S. special forces and FBI agents snatched Khatallah from a seaside villa in Libya three years ago and interrogated him aboard a Navy ship that slowly made its way to to the United States.

John Carlin, a former national security official said it’s remarkable that he was ever brought here in the first place.

“I bet he thought he was completely safe and wasn’t looking over his shoulder — to have some Americans show up and bring him back to face justice,” said Carlin.

Defense lawyers had argued that Khatallah was initially denied his rights to an attorney, deprived of a speedy appearance before a judge, and was questioned under coercion. But federal judge Christopher Cooper, after holding several hearings on the capture and interrogation, ruled that the statements made to the FBI on the ship could be admitted at the trial.

The Libyan informant, who collected a $7 million reward, testified during the trial that Khatallah planned the attack for more than a year.

The Benghazi issue dogged Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign. Donald Trump frequently raised it during public appearances. “Instead of taking charge that night, she decided to go home and sleep. Incredible,” he said.

Though the trial shed new light on the attack, it did not deal with the U.S. response.

The Obama administration decided not to seek the death penalty in the case, so when Khatallah is sentenced, at a later date, he’ll likely get several years in prison.

Meanwhile, another man, Mustafa al-Imam, also snatched from Libya by the U.S., will soon face trial on charges that he also took part in the attack.