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US Mission to Nab Benghazi Suspect Draws Fire

by Aru Pande June 19, 2014

Libyan officials have condemned this week's U.S. operation that nabbed the alleged ringleader of the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. As VOA's Aru Pande reports, after the 2011 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the operation in Libya again raises questions of how far the United States can go to target terror suspects abroad.

The United States did not notify the Libyan government before carrying out the June 14 operation that captured Ahmed Abu Khatallah - allegedly behind the September 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

And it did not take long for Libyan officials to express anger at the American mission.

'The government condemns this unfortunate attack on Libyan sovereignty, without prior knowledge of the Libyan government, in a time the city of Benghazi suffers from security disruptions,' said Foreign Ministry spokesman Said al Saoud in Tripoli.

The current security situation, Libyan officials say, made it difficult for Libyan law enforcement to act on their own warrant for Khatallah. They are demanding the Islamist militant's return to Libyan soil for trial.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki rejected that demand Wednesday and said the unilateral operation had been planned for some time.

"It should come as no surprise, given the tragedy that occurred on September 11, 2012, that we would take the opportunity to apprehend this individual and bring him to justice. And we have long stated that as a priority of the United States," said Psaki.

Like the May 2011 special forces raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, American officials say Khatallah's capture was undertaken in accordance with the United States' "inherent right to self-defense."

Daniel Serwer, a conflict management professor at Johns Hopkins University, says it's a grey area.

"We not only nab people, we kill people in other countries. And that may be justified on the basis of self-defense, but I don't think there is much in international law that allows it - what allows it is a lack of full sovereignty," says Serwer.

And in this case, he says – it was Libya's limited sovereignty, with the country's inability to fully control its own territory or establish law and order.

"The right thing to do is to have the Libyans arrest him and extradite him. But that's extraordinarily difficult for the Libyans. It's difficult because they don't have the security forces to do it, but it's also difficult politically in the current situation," says Serwer.

Serwer says the preferred method is for the United States to work with viable states it enjoys friendly ties with. But as in Pakistan, Yemen, and now Libya - that's not always the case.

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