Appeals court rejects 22-year sentence for Benghazi terrorist, orders new sentencing

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A 22-year prison term isn’t enough for a terrorist convicted for his role in the deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, a decade ago, a federal appeals court ruled.

The Sept. 11, 2012, assault on the U.S. intelligence and diplomatic facilities led to the deaths of foreign service officer Sean Patrick Smith, security officers Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, and Ambassador Christopher Stevens. This was the first time in 40 years that a sitting U.S. ambassador had been killed in the line of duty.

The defendant, Ahmed Abu Khatallah, 51, was captured by U.S. forces in 2014. Khatallah is also known by several aliases, among them Ahmed Salimfaraj Abukhatallah. Khatallah was the leader of Ubaydah Bin Jarrah, an Islamist militia operating in the Benghazi area. Evidence linked the militia to Ansar al-Sharia, an organization affiliated with the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, which was founded by the late Osama bin Laden and carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that brought down the World Trade Center, a commercial airliner in Pennsylvania, and inflicted heavy damage on the Pentagon, killing almost 3,000 people in the three locations.

Khatallah was convicted in November 2017 for his role in Benghazi. Months later, U.S. District Court Judge Christopher Cooper, an Obama appointee, imposed a 22-year sentence on him for conspiracy to provide and actually providing material support or resources to terrorists, maliciously destroying and injuring dwellings and property, placing lives in jeopardy within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States, and using a semi-automatic assault rifle during a crime of violence.

Because two of the convictions related to terrorism, Cooper could have sentenced Khatallah to life imprisonment, but instead, the judge opted for the shorter sentence.

Both Khatallah and the government appealed the sentence.

On July 26, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit unanimously found that the sentence pronounced by Cooper was “substantively unreasonably low in light of the gravity of his crimes of terrorism.”

Two of the judges, Gregory Katsas and Neomi Rao, were appointed by former President Donald Trump. The third judge, Patricia Millet, was appointed by former President Barack Obama.

The overly lenient sentence failed to take into account “the gravity of such an assault on an American diplomatic facility and the district court’s own recognition of the vital need to deter such crimes,” according to the panel.

“In sentencing Khatallah to just twelve years for the two support-of-terrorism counts and the property destruction count, the district court did not—and could not on this record—sufficiently justify its additional variance so far below the sentencing range that would have been appropriate even without any consideration of acquitted conduct,” the ruling reads.

Moreover, a reasonable juror could “still find that Khatallah was liable for placing Americans’ lives in jeopardy,” the appeals court found (pdf).

“There was overwhelming evidence that Khatallah’s co-conspirators attacked the Mission while Americans were present, but there is a much weaker link between Khatallah [and other deaths],” the appeals court stated. “So it was eminently sensible for the jury to find both that Khatallah was responsible for endangering American lives and that there was reasonable doubt that he was responsible for any deaths.”

It was unclear at press time if Khatallah planned further appeals.

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared June 28, 2022, in The Epoch Times.