United States commandos have captured the suspected leader of the 2012 attack on the United States mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, White House and Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
Apprehension of the suspect, Ahmed Abu Khattala, is a major breakthrough in the nearly two-year-old investigation into the attack, which also killed three other Americans, just two months before the presidential election in the United States. President Obama vowed swift action to bring the perpetrators to justice, but efforts to identify and prosecute the attackers were stymied by the chaos of the event and the broader mayhem in Libya.
Obama’s handling of the attack and the aftermath became a lightning rod for Republican critics. They accused him of misleading Americans about the circumstances behind it for his own political purposes and of failing to aggressively pursue those responsible — accusations that Mr. Obama and his defenders have strenuously denied.
Officials briefed on the investigation have said for more than a year that a plan to capture Mr. Abu Khattala was on Mr. Obama’s desk awaiting approval. But the administration held back, in part for fear that an American raid to retrieve him might further destabilize the already tenuous Libyan government.
Diplomats also suggested that the United States investigators might have been struggling to produce sufficient witness testimony and other evidence to convict Mr. Abu Khattala of responsibility for the deaths in an American court.
In an interview with The New York Times shortly after the Benghazi attack, Mr. Abu Khattala scoffed at the American effort to hold him accountable — another reflection of the atmosphere of lawlessness that pervaded Libya after the overthrow and death of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the country’s longtime autocrat, in October 2011.
The execution of the raid, which was first reported by The Washington Post, appears to signal that the investigators are confident in their case, and it may also reflect an acceptance that Libya is unlikely to become a stable partner in the pursuit of the culprits any time soon.
Indeed, a renegade general based in Benghazi is currently waging a low-grade military campaign against local Islamist militants like Mr. Abu Khattala, and the United States may have sought to arrest the suspect before the general, Khalifa Heftar, killed him in the fighting there.
The Pentagon announced that Mr. Abu Khattala had been captured on Sunday. “All U.S. personnel involved in the operation have safely departed Libya,” the Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said in a statement. He told reporters at a briefing that the operation had been carried out in Washington’s afternoon — presumably Sunday night local time in Libya — and that Libyan officials had been notified. He declined to specify whether the notification was given before, during or after Mr. Abu Khattala’s capture. “It was a unilateral, U.S. mission,” Admiral Kirby said.
Asked repeatedly why it took so long, he would only say that to properly and accurately identify Mr. Abu Khattala and move against him “takes a lot of planning.”
Mr. Obama also spoke about about the capture, describing it as a partial step in fulfilling his pledge to find those responsible for the lethal destruction of the American compound in Benghazi. Ambassador Stevens was the first American diplomat to die in a violent assault since 1979.
“Since the deadly attacks on our facilities in Benghazi, I have made it a priority to find and bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of four brave Americans,” Mr. Obama said in a statement.
The seizure of Mr. Abu Khattala by the American team, Mr. Obama said, “is a testament to the painstaking efforts of our military, law enforcement, and intelligence personnel. Because of their courage and professionalism, this individual will now face the full weight of the American justice system.”
Later, during a visit to Pittsburgh, Mr. Obama veered from prepared remarks to compliment the American team that captured Mr. Abu Khattala, saying the operation had been conducted with “incredible courage and precision.” He said that Mr. Abu Khattala was being transported to the United States.
“We continue to think about and pray for the families that were killed,” Mr. Obama said, adding that he wanted to send a message around the world that “when Americans are attacked, no matter how long it takes, we will find those responsible and we will bring them to justice.”
A United States law enforcement official said the military-law enforcement team — composed of American commandos and F.B.I. agents — captured Mr. Abu Khattala somewhere on the outskirts of Benghazi. No shots were fired, no civilians were hurt and no one else was taken into custody, the official said, in what was apparently a surprise raid.
“It was very clean, in and out, with no one hurt,” said the official, who was briefed on the operation and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the operation. Asked if Mr. Abu Khattala was being transferred to the United States, the official said, “He’s not here — yet.” The official declined to offer any other details.
A senior American diplomat briefed on the operation rebuffed any notion that the timing of the raid had been arranged by the Obama administration to divert public attention from the Sunni militant offensive now convulsing Iraq, more than two years after Mr. Obama completed the withdrawal of American forces from that country.
“There was zero connection to Iraq,” the official said.
Noting that Mr. Abu Khatalla had been under surveillance by American intelligence officials for months, the official added: “None of these kind of things are executed casually. There was a significant degree of planning.”
Asked about the impact of removing Mr. Abu Khattala from the extremist ranks in eastern Libya, the official said, “He has clearly been a negative factor in Benghazi, and now there’s one less negative factor.”
Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, told reporters traveling with Mr. Obama to Pittsburgh that the capture of Mr. Abu Khattala was an important development, but he declined to describe the suspect as the mastermind of the Benghazi assault, specify where he was being held outside Libya or explain why it took so long to seize him.
“More broadly, we have made it clear since that cowardly attack on our facilities that we would go to any lengths to find, apprehend and bring to justice those who perpetrated it and were responsible for the deaths of four Americans,” Mr. Carney said. “The capture of Abu Khattala is not the end of that effort, but it marks an important milestone.”
On the political impact of the capture, Mr. Carney said that “I really think this is entirely about the objective that we had as a country in the immediate aftermath and ever since, which is to bring those responsible to justice.”
Mr. Obama’s Republican critics, who have sought to portray the Benghazi attack as an administration cover-up and efforts to prosecute those responsible as weak, were cautious in their initial response to news of Mr. Abu Khattala’s capture.
“It is obviously good news that this terrorist is now in American custody, and I am grateful for the work of our military — assisted by the F.B.I. — in capturing him,” Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said in a statement. “I look forward to hearing more details regarding the raid, and I expect the administration to give our military professionals time to properly gather any useful intelligence he has.”
Since the attack, which fell on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, Benghazi has become a fixture of angry political debate in Washington, in part because of the administration’s failure up to now to bring anyone responsible to account.
Republicans, not satisfied with the results of a series of earlier hearings and reports on the attack, including inquiries by three congressional committees, this year formed a House select committee to continue the investigation.
They complain that the Obama administration misrepresented the genesis of the attack, playing down the role of Islamic extremism, in an election-year effort to defend the president’s claim to have reduced the threat from Al Qaeda.
Republicans’ attacks on Susan E. Rice, who was ambassador to the United Nations at the time, for portraying the attack as being a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Muslim video may well have cost her the opportunity to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state. Instead, Mr. Obama named Ms. Rice as his national security adviser, a post not requiring Senate confirmation.
A leading critic, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, late last year threatened to hold up every presidential appointment in the Senate until more questions were answered about Benghazi.
Democrats, in turn, point to the series of reports and inquiries to say that Ms. Rice had acted in good faith; that the security of the small mission in Benghazi had been appropriately handled by lower-level State Department officials; and that the United States had no military means to halt the attack once it was underway.
A commission led by Thomas R. Pickering, a respected diplomat, and Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, found “systemic failures” and “management deficiencies” by State Department officials in protecting the Benghazi outpost, but uncovered no evidence of the sort of administration cover-up that some Republicans have alleged.
In her new book, “Hard Choices,” Mrs. Clinton writes of the attack that “I was the one ultimately responsible for my people’s safety, and I never felt that responsibility more deeply than I did that day.” But she adds, in reference to the unending Republican criticism, that “I will not be a part of a political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans.”