WASHINGTON - A 47-year-old Libyan man who was captured by US special forces in Libya and brought to the United States for trial was sentenced to prison on Thursday for his role in the 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi.
Mustafa al-Imam, who was convicted of terrorism charges and other offenses in June 2019 after a six-week trial, was sentenced to 19 years and six months in prison by a US District Court judge.
US ambassador Chris Stevens, communications specialist Sean Smith and security officers Tyrone Snowden Woods and Glen Anthony Doherty died in the September 11, 2012 attack. Their deaths prompted a political fracas in which Republicans accused the Obama administration of a bungled response.
"Each sacrificed his life promoting American ideals," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement, adding that Al-Imam's sentencing "sends a strong message to those who would attempt to commit such a heinous crime."
Imam was captured by US troops in Libya in October 2017 and brought to the United States.
"Imam played an important role in the terrorist attack that destroyed the US mission and the CIA annex in Benghazi," US attorney Jessie Liu said in a statement.
"Today's sentencing is a reminder that the safety of Americans - whether at home or abroad, civilian or otherwise - will always be our top priority," Liu said. "If you commit an act of terrorism, we will find you and bring you to justice."
According to prosecutors, Imam was in contact during the attack on the US mission with Ahmed Abu Khattala, another Libyan national who was captured by US troops in 2014 and also brought to the United States.
The head of the Islamist militia who directed the siege, Khattala was convicted in 2017 on terrorism-related charges and sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Khattala was accused of driving to the diplomatic mission on Sept. 11, 2012, and breaching the main gate with militants who attacked with assault rifles, grenades and other weapons. The initial attack killed Stevens and Smith and set the mission ablaze. Woods and Doherty were later killed at a CIA annex.
'Terrorists must understand'
On Thursday, federal prosecutors in Washington asked US District Judge Christopher Cooper to send a message to others contemplating attacks on Americans overseas, saying al-Imam deserved the maximum 35-year sentence.
"In the current geopolitical environment, terrorists must understand that there are harsh consequences for attacking diplomatic posts and harming US personnel — particularly a US ambassador," Assistant US Attorney John Cummings wrote in a court filing.
Defense attorneys said al-Imam made a “tremendous mistake” by damaging and looting US property after the attacks. But they insisted there was no evidence he intended to harm any Americans, noting jurors could not reach a verdict on the murder charges al-Imam faced.
“Mustafa al-Imam is a frail, uneducated and simple man,” they wrote in a court filing. "He is not a fighter, an ideologue or a terrorist. He is a former convenience store clerk whose main loves in life are soccer and family."
Al-Imam was tried in a civilian court despite the Trump administration's earlier contention that such suspects are better sent to Guantanamo Bay. His arrest, five years after the attack, was the first publicly known operation since President Donald Trump took office targeting those accused of involvement in Benghazi.
Prosecutors acknowledged there was no evidence that al-Imam “directly caused” the killings at the US compounds. But they said he aligned himself with Khattala and acted as his “eyes and ears” at the height of the attacks.
During a four-week trial in Washington, prosecutors pointed to phone records that showed al-Imam was in the vicinity of the mission and placed an 18-minute call to Khattala during a “pivotal moment” of the attacks.
Al-Imam also entered the US compound, prosecutors said, and took sensitive material that identified the location of the CIA annex about a mile away from the mission as the evacuation point for Department of State personnel, where security officers Woods and Doherty were killed.
In interviews with law enforcement following his 2017 capture in Misrata, Libya, he admitted stealing a phone and map from the US mission.
The deaths of US officials in Libya stunned Americans and became the focus of a politically charged investigation by congressional Republicans of then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who was accused of not doing enough to protect the diplomats.
Clinton was never convincingly tagged with wrongdoing or negligence, but the issue haunted her failed 2016 presidential campaign.