Center for Strategic Communication

The chaotic aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi contrasts sharply with a leisurely interview one of the top suspects in the attack has given to The New York Times, in the same city. Photo: Wikimedia

No one from the FBI has interviewed him. Libyan security forces haven’t brought him in for questioning. But one of the leading suspects behind last month’s bloody assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi just gave a boastful interview to The New York Times, all while comfortably sipping a strawberry frappe and trying to convert the reporter to Islam. Comments like these help explain why the CIA wants to expand the drone war.

Ahmed Abu Khattala is not living the life of a wanted man. Eyewitnesses to the attack interviewed by the Times placed him at the scene, and he’s connected to the militant group Ansar al-Shariah that the U.S. believes played at least some role in the assault. There is supposed to be a search for the attackers underway. President Obama has vowed revenge for Benghazi.

Yet Abu Khattala met with the Times’ David Kirkpatrick at a “luxury hotel” in eastern Libyan city for “two leisurely hours,” and did everything but laugh openly at Obama’s pledge. Abu Khattala doesn’t plan to go into hiding. The reconstituted Libyan army is a “national chicken,” he said, and poses no threat to him. And he’s not sorry for the assault that killed Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans; indeed, he equivocates on what his precise role in it was. “No authority has even questioned him about the attack,” he told Kirkpatrick.

Abu Khattala basically trolled the U.S. in the pages of its leading newspaper. “Why is [the U.S.] always trying to use force to implement its agendas?” queried a man who may have helped a mob kill four Americans. Complicating the current consensus narrative of the Benghazi assault, Abu Khattala says the attack on the consulate had “grown out of a peaceful protest against a video” insulting the Prophet Muhammad — a peaceful protest the State Department now says never took place. Most of all, he gave the interview on a patio of a crowded luxury hotel, drinking a strawberry frappe, musing about the incompatibility of Islam and democracy and inviting Kirkpatrick to convert.

Abu Khattala is obviously not feeling pressure from the manhunt that Obama administration officials have portrayed as underway. There are supposed to be U.S. surveillance drone orbits over Libya, which never stopped after last year’s war. Below them is supposed to be an FBI team investigating the attack. (The team was delayed.) And The Washington Post reports that the Libya attack has helped fuel a CIA push to expand its armed drone fleet.

For David Petraeus, the director of the CIA, expanding his agency’s drone flights reflect a new normal. The CIA will be prosecuting a drone campaign to hunt and kill extremists in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and now northern Africa for the foreseeable future. The Post’s Greg Jaffe reports that the CIA wants an additional 10 armed drones to complement its fleet of approximately 30, in order to extend and sustain its campaign. “With what happened in Libya, we’re realizing that these places are going to heat up,” an anonymous official told Jaffe. If there’s any off-ramp from an increased pace of drone strikes, the CIA is not taking it.

Petraeus’ call for an expanded drone fleet might get a boost from Abu Khattala’s confidence. U.S. officials, such as Pentagon spokesman George Little, have portrayed the search for Stevens’ killers as “aggressively” robust. “We’ve not been sitting around waiting, you know, for information to come to us,” Little told reporters on Oct. 4. “We’ve been actively chasing leads in various ways. The intelligence community, the State Department, FBI, the full range of capabilities of this government have been used to try to determine what happened in this tragic incident.”

At the second presidential debate, Obama reiterated a vow to avenge the Benghazi attack, and tied it to the successful manhunt that killed Osama bin Laden. “We are going to find out who did this and we’re going to hunt them down,” Obama said on Tuesday, “because one of the things that I’ve said throughout my presidency is when folks mess with Americans, we go after them.”

At least one person wanted in connection with that attack does not believe Obama. Petraeus may be about to strike a few lethal items off his shopping list.