BENGHAZI Libya (Reuters) - The suspected ringleader of a 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, snatched this week by U.S. forces, had been fighting a Libyan general committed to root out Islamist rebels when he vanished without trace, according to his brother.
“The family was in contact with him on Saturday and Sunday. I was told that he drove away with a friend on Sunday and that was the last we heard of him,” said the brother of Ahmed Abu Khatallah, who was seized by U.S. special forces and spirited out of the country to an American naval ship.
The United States, which lost four officials including Ambassador Chris Stevens in the 2012 attack, has given few details of the operation in an area where Tripoli struggles to assert its rule - a reflection of the chaos in the oil producer three years after the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi.
Abu Khatallah’s brother Abu Bakr told Reuters in an interview that past U.S. operations suggested Libyans must have helped the Americans find and capture him during the chaos of fighting around the port city of one million.
Sunday was a perfect day for U.S. commandos to slip in unnoticed - the city was a battlefield for much of the day.
“Residents told me they saw two helicopters near the coast in Qanfuda,” Abu Bakr Khatallah said. He had tried calling all his brother’s friends. “Their phones are off.”
The family later found the car abandoned in Qanfuda, a town some 10 km west Benghazi. U.S. officials say only that the grab took place on Sunday outside Libya’s second-largest city.
Barack Obama announced the operation only on Tuesday. It was widely seen as a victory for the U.S. president who has been accused by Republicans of playing down the role of al Qaeda in 2012 attacks for political reasons and of being slow in bringing perpetrators to justice.
Washington says Khatallah will go on trial in the United States. His brother says it will only prove his innocence.
Ahmed told Reuters in October 2012 he had been at the consulate during the attack but only helped divert traffic.
The east of Libya is the scene of daily battles.
Renegade general Khalifa Haftar had launched an offensive, moving in armor and trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns to attack suspected camps of militant Islamists, part of a campaign to tackle militants started last month.
With shells exploding several parts of the city, frightened residents stayed indoors. Much of the city was plunged into darkness at night after rockets had hit a power plant.
“I am convinced he was taken with the help of Libyans,” Abu Bakr said.
When U.S. forces launched a similar operation in Tripoli in October against Abu Anas al-Liby, wanted for involvement in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, residents said people speaking Libyan Arabic had been involved.
Khatallah had denied in a Reuters interview in October 2012 that he was a leader of Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist group Washington accuses of carrying out the assault on the consulate.
But his brother Abu Bakr said he had joined the battle against Haftar whose troops, beyond the command of Tripoli, have launched several attacks on suspected Islamist bases.
“He was against (Haftar‘s) operation dignity and joined the battle against Haftar,” he said, without giving details.
The U.S. raid came at a critical time for the weak government preparing for elections next week. Under pressure from Islamists and militias which helped oust Gaddafi but now carve out fiefdoms, Tripoli has denounced the arrest as kidnapping and an attack on its sovereignty.
The U.S. had considered grabbing Khatallah after the October raid that scooped Liby, U.S. officials told Reuters. But that raid caused uproar. A militia briefly kidnapped then Prime Minister Ali Zeidan accusing him of having known of the action. Going after Khatallah was then deemed impractical.
Born in 1971 in Benghazi, Abu Khatallah grew up in the Lithi district, an area with potholed roads and buildings where the painting is crumbling from walls, typical for a city neglected for decades by Gaddafi.
Khatallah, whose father was a soccer player for Benghazi clubs, dropped out of high school before he opened a car garage, according to his brother. He later worked for construction firms and also briefly for the health ministry.
While Khatallah has denied any role in Ansar Sharia there is no doubt he grew up in a religious family - five of six sisters were trained in recitation of the Holy Muslim Quran. One of them opened a religious school for girls.
He said his brother had spent between 1995 and 2010 a total of ten years in jail under Gaddafi. “He was charged for belonging to an armed group,” said Abu Bakr.
This is impossible to verify as many public records were destroyed during the 2011 uprising but several militia leaders spent time in jail under the former strongman. A prominent example is Ibrahim Jathran who helped oust Gaddafi but has seized major oil ports to press Tripoli into regional autonomy.
When the NATO-backed uprising against Gaddafi in Libya broke out Ahmed joined on the fourth day, his brother said.
Abu Khatalllah, who is not married, formed the Obeidah al-Jarrah militia, which was blamed for the killing of Abdel Fattah Younes, a former Gaddafi loyalist who had defected to the rebels. Hardline rebels were never happy to serve under a man who had been so close to Gaddafi.
Abu Bakr said ex-premier Zeidan had asked the special forces commander in Benghazi, Wanis Bukhamada, to get him but the latter told him he didn’t have strong enough forces.
“We don’t have a government or a state,” he said.
additional reporting by Ulf Laessing and Feras Bosalum in Tripoli and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by