WASHINGTON — For years, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington has watched as authorities in New York and Virginia handled many of nation's biggest terrorism cases — even ones in which the District of Columbia was the target of planned attacks.
Now, with the capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala, a suspected ringleader in the assault on U.S. outposts in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed, U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. and other attorneys are poised to handle one of the most important American terrorism cases in recent memory. Abu Khattala, who is being interrogated aboard a U.S. warship, is expected to be brought to the United States and arraigned in Washington in the days ahead.
The case will mark a critical challenge for an office that has comparatively less experience in prosecuting high-profile terrorism cases, suffered setbacks in recent cases and, at other times, been considered slow to build cases. Several former law enforcement officials said top Justice Department figures have steered some cases away from Machen's office, in favor of offices with more experience.
The Benghazi case "is an opportunity for the U.S. Attorney's Office in D.C. to demonstrate its prowess in handling a high-profile, sensitive terrorism prosecution," David Laufman, a former assistant U.S. attorney who handled national security cases at the Justice Department.
Officials in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington said in interviews that, over the past three years, Machen and his prosecutors have filed more cases against suspected terrorists than any of their counterparts nationwide — even if many of those cases remain sealed.
"When we have the facts, we go aggressively after the case," said Gregg Maisel, chief of the national security section in Machen's office.
Karen Greenberg, who directs Fordham Law School's Center on National Security and who has tracked terrorism prosecutions, said the "train left the station a long time ago about which offices were going to be important in terrorism: Manhattan and Brooklyn and Northern Virginia."
"This will be a major test of the federal prosecutors," she said of the Abu Khattala case, "because they don't have the institutional history and experience of the other courts."
The Abu Khattala prosecution will be led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael DiLorenzo, who joined the national security unit in 2008. DiLorenzo, 45, won last year's conviction of Julian Zapata Espinoza in the murder in Mexico of U.S. immigration agent Jaime Zapata, but has less of a track record on terrorism.
Most federal prosecutions are pursued in close proximity to the sites of the alleged crimes, in one of the 93 U.S. attorney's offices spread across the United States and its territories. But the District of Columbia office is unique: Under Justice Department guidelines, the U.S. Attorney's Office in the District of Columbia has the legal authority to bring almost any case.
For the highest-profile cases, including terrorism cases, senior Justice Department officials frequently become involved in choosing the venue, considering factors such as the experience of the prosecutors, the reputation of the judges and the potential juries in each district.
"All cases can be brought in D.C., usually by the statutes or where the person first lands. So D.C. is in some ways a natural place to bring these cases," Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said in a recent interview with The Washington Post.
The list of terrorism prosecutions that have been made public and brought to conclusion in the District of Columbia is relatively modest. Repeatedly, other offices have been assigned high-profile cases in which attacks were intended to take place in Washington.
When an Iranian-American was arrested in a 2011 plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States and attack the Saudi embassy, many — including some in the FBI — thought it would be a natural fit for prosecutors in Washington. The plot involved targeting the ambassador at a site inside the boundaries of the District of Columbia.
But the Justice Department sent the case to the Southern District of New York. The head of that office, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, orchestrated a complex operation along with the FBI to lure the suspect, Mansour Arbabsiar, out of Iran and then have his flight make an unexpected stop at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Arbabsiar eventually pleaded guilty. A former senior federal law enforcement official familiar with the case said Justice officials "did everything they could" to keep the prosecution from falling to the Washington office for fear that it wouldn't be handled properly. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity, as did others interviewed for this article, to freely discuss Machen and his office.
Similarly, a Moroccan named Amine Mohamed El-Khalifi pleaded guilty in 2012 to wanting to carry out a plot to bomb the U.S. Capitol as part of a terrorist operation. He was charged in the Eastern District of Virginia.
In another important national security case, the FBI arrested a group of Russian spies in June 2010. The case was assigned to prosecutors in New York instead of Washington, and the suspects were charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government without properly registering at the Justice Department in Washington.
Perhaps the most important public terrorism case, other than Benghazi, assigned to the District of Columbia office in recent years involved the December 2009 murder of seven CIA employees in Afghanistan.
In that case, Hakimullah Mehsud, commander of the Pakistani Taliban, appeared in a video admitting his role in the attack not long after it occurred. It took prosecutors, including DiLorenzo, approximately eight months to file a criminal complaint despite that concrete evidence.