Updated 9 p.m.
The Libyan militant accused of masterminding the deadly Benghazi attacks that have become a flashpoint in U.S. politics appeared briefly for the first time in an American courtroom, pleading not guilty Saturday to a terrorism-related charge nearly two weeks after he was captured by special forces.
In a 10-minute hearing held amid tight security, Ahmed Abu Khattala spoke just two words, both in Arabic. He replied "yes" when asked to swear to tell the truth and "no" when asked if he was having trouble understanding the proceeding.
Abu Khattala becomes the most recent foreign terror suspect to be prosecuted in American courts, a forum the Obama administration contends is both fairer and more efficient than the military tribunal process used at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The case is being tried in Washington despite concerns from Republicans in Congress who say he should not be entitled to the protections of the U.S. legal system.
A grand jury indictment handed up under seal Thursday and made public Saturday said Abu Khattala participated in a conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2012, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
That crime is punishable by up to life in prison. The government said it soon would file more charges against Abu Khattala.
During his initial court appearance, the defendant listened via headphones to a translation of the proceedings. He wore a two-piece black track suit, had a beard and long curly hair, both mostly grey, and kept his hands, which were not handcuffed, behind his back.
He looked impassively at U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola for most of the hearing. Abu Khattala's court-appointed lawyer, Michelle Peterson, entered the not guilty plea. Facciola ordered the defendant's continued detention, but the judge did not say where Abu Khattala would be held.
The U.S. Marshals Service said it had taken custody of Abu Khattalah, who now was confined to a detention facility in the capital region, ending a harried day for the Libyan.
The Libyan militant accused of masterminding the deadly Benghazi attacks that have become a flashpoint in U.S. politics awaited his first court appearance Saturday amid heightened security at a federal courthouse.
Ahmed Abu Khattala was scheduled to appear before a magistrate judge, according to the U.S. attorney's office. He is charged in connection with the assaults on the U.S. diplomatic compound in the eastern Libyan city on Sept. 11, 2012, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
U.S. special forces captured Abu Khattala in Libya two weeks ago, marking the first breakthrough in the investigation. Officials had been questioning Abu Khattala aboard a Navy ship that transported him to the United States.
The prosecution reflects the Obama administration's stated position of trying suspected terrorists in the American criminal justice system even as Republicans call for Abu Khattala and others to be held at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Critics say suspected terrorists don't deserve the legal protections afforded by the American court. The administration considers the civilian justice system fairer and more efficient.
Abu Khattala was flown early Saturday by military helicopter from the ship to a National Park Service landing pad in the Washington's Anacostia neighbourhood, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the transfer publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
A criminal complaint filed last year and unsealed after Abu Khattala's capture charges him with terror-related crimes. They include killing a person during an attack on a federal facility; that crime can be punishable by death.
At the initial hearing, the government was expected to outline the charges against him. He almost certainly will remain in detention while the Justice Department seeks a federal grand jury indictment against him.
The violence in Libya on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon quickly became a political controversy at home.
Republicans accused the White House, as the 2012 presidential election neared, of intentionally misleading the public about what prompted the attacks. The White House said Republicans were politicizing a national tragedy.
Abu Khattala was a prominent figure in Benghazi's circles of extremists. He was popular among young radicals and lived openly in the eastern Libyan city, spotted at cafes and other public places, even after the Obama administration publicly named him as a suspect.
He is accused of being a member of the Ansar al-Shariah group, the powerful Islamic militia that the U.S. believes was behind the attack.