CAIRO — Libyan authorities have singled out Ahmed Abu Khattala, a leader of the Benghazi-based Islamist group Ansar al-Shariah, as a commander in the attack that killed the American ambassador toLibya, J. Christopher Stevens, last month, Libyans involved in the investigation said Wednesday.
Witnesses at the scene of the attack on the American Mission in Benghazi have said they saw Mr. Abu Khattala leading the assault, and his personal involvement is the latest link between the attack and his brigade, Ansar al-Shariah, a puritanical militant group that wants to advance Islamic law in Libya.
The identity and motivation of the assailants have become an intense point of contention in the American presidential campaign. Republicans have sought to tie the attack to Al Qaeda to counter President Obama’s assertion that by killing Osama bin Laden and other leaders his administration had crippled the group; Mr. Abu Khattala and Ansar al-Shariah share Al Qaeda’s puritanism and militancy, but operate independently and focus only on Libya rather than on a global jihad against the West.
But Mr. Abu Khattala’s exact role, or how much of the leadership he shared with others, is not yet clear. His leadership would not rule out participation or encouragement by militants connected to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an Algerian Islamic insurgency that adopted the name of Bin Laden’s group a few years ago to bolster its image, but has so far avoided attacks on Western interests.
Like the other leaders of the brigade or fighters seen in the attack, Mr. Abu Khattala remains at large and has not yet been questioned.
The authorities in Tripoli do not yet command an effective army or police force, and members of the recently elected Parliament have acknowledged with frustration that their government’s limited power has shackled their ability to pursue the attackers.
The government typically relies on self-formed local militias to act as law enforcement, and the Benghazi-area militias appear reluctant to enter a potentially bloody fight against another local group, like Ansar al-Shariah, to track down Mr. Abu Khattala.
Asked last week about Mr. Abu Khattala’s role, an American official involved in a separate United States investigation declined to comment on any particular suspects, but he indicated that the United States was tracking Mr. Abu Khattala and cautioned that the leadership of the attack might have been broader than a single man.
“Ansar al-Shariah is not only a shadowy group, it’s also quite factionalized,” the official said. “There isn’t necessarily one overall military commander of the group.”
It was not immediately clear if that assessment might have changed with new information from Libyan witnesses. The New York Times reported Tuesday that Mr. Abu Khattala was a leader of the brigade, but withheld accounts of his specific role in the attack to protect witnesses. On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that three witnesses had seen him during the Sept. 11 attack on the mission and that the Libyan authorities were focused on his role.
The Journal reported that Mr. Abu Khattala had been seen at large in the Leithi neighborhood of Benghazi, known for a high concentration of Islamists. But his exact whereabouts is unclear. Libyan border security is loose, so it is possible that he will flee or has already left the country.
Mr. Abu Khattala was a member of the Islamist opposition under Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and was imprisoned in his notorious Abu Salim prison. Unlike most of the other Islamist prisoners, however, Mr. Abu Khattala never renounced violence as a means for seeking political change. He was let out of prison only last year, along with a batch of other political prisoners released in a futile bid by the government to appease the nascent uprising.
Mr. Abu Khattala fought Colonel Qaddafi along with the rest of the Libyan opposition and the current leaders of the big militias in eastern Libya. But as those groups lined up behind the transitional government and the democratic process, Mr. Abu Khattala and a small core of like-minded Islamists formed Ansar al-Shariah, which now includes 100 to 200 fighters. Its name means “supporters of Islamic law,” and it opposes electoral democracy as a substitute.
It has staged displays of armed might intended to deter Western-style secular liberals whom it suspects of moving to liberalize Libya, where alcohol is currently banned,polygamy is legal and a vast majority of women wear an Islamic head covering.
But Ansar al-Shariah also guarded a local hospital and engaged in preaching and charitable work, before popular anger at the group for its role in the mission attack forced it to scatter and hide out of sight.
Suliman Ali Zway contributed reporting from Tripoli, Libya, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 17, 2012
The headline with an earlier version of this article misidentified the source of the identification of Ahmed Abu Khattala as a commander in the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Libya has named Mr. Abu Khattala, not the United States.