CAIRO â€” 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 toÂ Libya,Â 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 inÂ 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 Obamaâ€™s assertion that by killingÂ Osama bin LadenÂ and other leaders his administration had crippled the group; Mr. Abu Khattala and Ansar al-Shariah share Al Qaedaâ€™s puritanism and militancy, but operate independently and focus only on Libya rather than on a global jihad against the West.
But Mr. Abu Khattalaâ€™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 Ladenâ€™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 governmentâ€™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 Khattalaâ€™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.
â€œAnsar al-Shariah is not only a shadowy group, itâ€™s also quite factionalized,â€ the official said. â€œThere isnâ€™t necessarily one overall military commander of the group.â€