NEW YORK -- While questions remain about what exactly triggered the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, there appeared to be a break in the investigation on Wednesday. Unnamed Libyan authorities, along with witnesses, pointed to Ahmed Abu Khattala as being the suspected commander of the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others.
The problem was that Abu Khattala, believed to be a leader of Islamist group Ansar al-Shariah, "remains at large and has not yet been questioned," according to The New York Times on Wednesday. An American official, speaking anonymously, said the U.S. had previously been tracking him. But it now wasn't even clear if Abu Khattala was still in Libya. The Wall Street Journal, also speaking with unnamed Libyan authorities, similarly reported that Abu Khattala "remains at large."
But it didn't take long for Abu Khattala to surface, thus demonstrating that unnamed "officials" quoted in articles may not always have the clearest idea of what's happening on the ground. And over the past 24 hours, he's denied any role in the attack during lengthy interviews with reporters out in the open.
"These reports say that no one knows where I am and that I am hiding," Abu Khattala told Reuters on Thursday. "But here I am in the open, sitting in a hotel with you. I'm even going to pick up my sister's kids from school soon."
Reuters spoke Thursday with Abu Khattala in the restaurant of a Benghazi hotel and described the 41-year-old as "sporting a red felt hat and a full salt-and-pepper beard, laughed gently." Abu Khattala acknowledged being at the scene of the consulate attack, but said he was directing traffic rather than leading an assault.
And on Thursday evening, Abu Khattala spent "two leisurely hours" at a crowded luxury hotel with a Times reporter. In that interview, Abu Khattala claimed the attack stemmed from a peaceful protest over an anti-Islam video on YouTube, echoing the Obama administration's initial explanation.
Witnesses and some of the attackers have told the Times that the attack was in retaliation for the video, but not that it grew out of a spontaneous, peaceful protest. The White House hasn't ruled out that the video may have played a role, and a more recent narrative of events suggests a more sophisticated terrorist attack, which may have been pre-planned. Still, more details emerge daily, with the Wall Street Journal reporting Friday about "early uncertainty on Libya account" and how intelligence analysts received information contradicting the Obama White House's early explanation but it took weeks to reach senior administration officials.
However, the fog of war doesn't only extend to the pivotal events that transpired in Benghazi on Sept. 11, but also to even less significant details on the ground.The Times added a correction Friday to its Abu Khattala story, noting that the paper incorrectly stated what beverage he was drinking. "It was a strawberry frappe, not mango juice, which is what he had ordered," the Times wrote.