The Washington Post reported Friday that the U.S. efforts to capture suspects in the Sept. 2012 Benghazi attack, including alleged ringleader Ahmed Abu Khattala, have stalled.
U.S. forces planned to capture Khattala in October, but dropped the mission following the fallout from a separate raid in Tripoli. An official told The Post that Khattala's "free as a bird."
Khattala's seemed that way for some time -- at least through media reports. While the U.S. government has so far been unable to catch Khattala, journalists haven't had trouble locating him since shortly after the attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
Last year, I wrote how both the New York Times and Reuters sat down with Khattala around the time he was first considered a suspect. In those reports -- and in more recent ones -- journalists have noted the disconnect between his status as a wanted man and casually meeting in public.
On Oct. 18, 2012, New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick "spent two leisurely hours" with Khattala "at a crowded luxury hotel, sipping a strawberry frappe on a patio and scoffing at the threats coming from the American and Libyan governments."
Reuters caught up with Khattala the same day and similarly reported that he didn't appear overly concerned. "Sitting with a friend in the restaurant of a Benghazi hotel, the 41-year-old, sporting a red felt hat and a full salt-and-pepper beard, laughed gently," wrote Hadeel Al Shalchi and Ghaith Shennib.
And that's not the last time Khattala popped up in the western media. In August, CNN's Arwa Damon spent two hours with him at a well-known hotel coffee shop in Benghazi. When asked on-air about locating Khattala, Damon said he's "not a man who is in hiding."
Khattala recently surfaced again in the western media, meeting with a Times of London reporter in late October.
Given his status as a fugitive and the gravity of his alleged crime -- involvement in the killing of the US ambassador -- it might be expected Ahmed Abu Khattala would go to ground in a safe house.
Yet, as Abu Khattala, 42, pours a cup of green tea and offers me a tray of biscuits, he gazes thoughtfully from the sofa in his home in a street barely 10 minutes' drive from the centre of Benghazi.
So why doesn't Khattala seem concerned about being captured in these reports?
"Another U.S. raid would cause things to go out of control,'' Wanis Bukhamada, the head of Libya's special forces, told The Times of London. "There would be a lot of retaliation. You couldn't tell what might happen.''
That point was echoed by officials Friday, telling the Post that another raid "could lead to the toppling of [Libyan Prime Minister Ali] Zeidan's government and increase the chaos in a country that the United States would like to see stabilize."
"This situation is tougher in Libya now," a senior Obama administration official told the Post. "You sort of get one crack at these things, and then it's tougher."
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