Ahmad Abu Khattallah does not dispute claims he was at the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi the night it was attacked. “We had heard there was some shooting at the area,” says the man with a beard down to his chest. “February 17th [a brigade tasked with protecting the mission] asked us to help them extricate some of their men holed up in the mission.” But when asked who was behind the Sept. 11, 2012 assault that took the life of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, Khattallah gazes without emotion at his mobile phone as he sits for one of several interviews with TIME in a local hotel. “The attack came from the people,” he says, pausing to capture his thoughts. “I don’t know if anything was planned.” He grows vehement when confronted with allegations that he masterminded the raid (the Associated Press interviewed a witness who claims that Khattallah, who heads a militia called Abu Obaida Bin Jarra, guided fighters around the compound.) “The attack,” Khattallah insists, “that was not us.”
In a number of meetings over two weeks, Khattallah discussed everything from Islam’s respect of other religions to his qualms with Washington’s Middle East policies. But it is his alleged role in the Benghazi debacle that has made him a person of interest for Americans. As if to belie accusations that could well catapult him to the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted List, Khattallah has not gone into hiding and wanders the streets of Benghazi freely.
He is certainly a person that many in Benghazi believe can get things done. During an interview at his sparsely furnished house in Benghazi’s Layti neighborhood, his living room filled up with men seeking his help to resolve problems. Under Muammar Gaddafi’s rule, Khattallah was incarcerated several times. The dictator’s security services frequently arrested pious Muslims for sporting long beards or spending too much time in mosques. With his facial hair, Khattallah was one of the usual suspects. Like many Libyans, he took up arms against the government during the 2011 revolution, coming to prominence after the assassination of the rebels’ chief of staff Abd al-Fattah Yunis in August 2011. Many rebel officials believe Khattallah was behind the killing. TIME brought up the subject during one of the interviews but Khattallah refused to go into it saying “The revolution is over. And we don’t talk about the past.”
Ostensibly a building contractor, Khattallah refuses to give his age but he looks to be in his 40s. Not a jovial man, he nevertheless often has a smile on his face. And while he often answered questions quickly, a pensive look would come over him at some times before venturing a cautious response. There would be many ambivalent and ambiguous statements. At times, he would respond to questions with queries his own, at others he would refuse to answer them altogether. For example, when asked “how many people does Ansar al-Shari’a have?” Khattallah unhelpfully replies that the Islamist group “has many people.” The organization had been linked to the attack though it has denied involvement. The New York Times claimed that Khattallah is a leader of the group. When asked if Ansar al-Shari’a members were involved in the Sept. 11, 2012 attack, he simply says, “We didn’t see them there that night.”
A number of Libyans say Khattallah belongs to the takfir movement which believes that Muslims who do not demonstrate a requisite level of piety can be declared infidels, thus allowing them to be killed. When asked about takfirism, Khattallah simply says, “The people who curse our Prophet are infidels.” In Arabic, the words have additional resonance. The word for “infidel” has the same root as takfir.
He prefers focusing on Western hostility toward Islam. “Stop thinking of us as terrorists,” he says, “and start to build a friendly relationship with the people.” When asked his opinion of the attack on the Benghazi mission, he says swiftly, “I don’t support the attack on American diplomats in Libya, but if Americans get involved in Libyan issues they need to watch out what they are going to get.” When asked again if he supported attacks against Americans, he says, “I don’t have an answer for that.”
In the murky world of Libyan militias that dominate the country’s new security landscape, people like Khattallah have gained authority and status. Intelligence services have not interrogated him. Khattallah claims he has even been in contact with President Muhammad Muqaryef, though he is not forthcoming about the communication was about. He insists the president never said Khattallah was a suspect in the Benghazi incident, even though CBS News cited Muqaryef as saying so. “We can’t move against Khattallah and his gangs,” says a senior militia leader. “They control the street. Khattallah was involved in the attack. We know this.” The militia leader, however, refused to have his name made public because he was fearful of being targeted by radical Islamists for cooperating with the U.S.