Waad Ramadan Alwan, 30, and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi, 23, were arrested… (AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — Before he was granted refugee status in the U.S. and settled down in Bowling Green, Ky., Waad Ramadan Alwan was allegedly a sniper and skilled bomb maker who targeted U.S. forces and bragged that his "lunch and dinner would be an American."
Alwan is one of two Iraqi refugees who the Justice Department announced Tuesday had been charged with participating in an alleged plot to send cash, explosives and Stinger missiles to Iraq for use against Americans.
The men are among 56,000 Iraqis who took advantage of special programs to come to the United States after demonstrating they were in danger from Iraqi militias for their religious beliefs or because they were translators for U.S. government or media organizations.
Alwan was admitted into the U.S. in 2009 even though his fingerprint was found in 2005 on an unexploded roadside bomb that was set to blow up a U.S. convoy in Iraq, according to court documents. His print was loaded into a Defense Department database. But when he applied for U.S. refugee status, a search of that database was not yet a part of the application process.
Since then, those information-sharing weaknesses have been identified and corrected, said an official with the Department of Homeland Security. Also, as new records go into the terrorist watch list, he said, refugees already in the U.S. are being vetted again.
When asked how men who actively fought against the U.S. in Iraq could have been allowed in the country, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said the case demonstrated that there were "specific gaps" in refugee vetting procedures before 2010.
Alwan, 30, and his cousin Mohanad Shareef Hammadi, 23, were arrested in Kentucky on May 25, and a federal grand jury returned the 23-count indictment the next day.
Charges against Alwan include conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals abroad; conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction against U.S. nationals abroad; attempting to provide material support to terrorists and to the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq; and conspiracy to transfer, possess and export Stinger missiles.
Hammadi was charged with attempting to provide material support to terrorists and to Al Qaeda in Iraq and conspiracy to transfer, possess and export Stinger missiles.
Each faces life in prison if convicted.
Alwan had been under investigation since September 2009. According to charging documents that were unsealed Tuesday, Alwan recruited Hammadi to assist him, describing him as a relative who had worked as an insurgent in Iraq.
Over the course of a long undercover investigation, the documents say, Alwan and Hammadi picked up weapons provided by an FBI informant, at least some of them made inoperable by the FBI, and delivered them to a location believing they would be shipped to Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Starting in September 2010, the FBI informant told Alwan he was helping support insurgents in Iraq by smuggling weapons and money in used vehicles sent to Iraq. After that, Alwan and later Hammadi allegedly helped load into a tractor-trailer rocket-propelled grenade launchers, Kalashnikov PKM machine guns, sniper rifles, cases of inert C-4 explosives, two inert FIM-92A Stinger surface-to-air missiles and $100,000 cash, according to court documents.
There are no indications in the charging documents that Alwan or Hammadi had made plans to attack targets in the U.S.
In conversations with an FBI informant, Alwan described himself as a holy warrior, or "mujahid," who came to the U.S. because he was wanted in Iraq and a U.S. passport would allow him to travel freely, the documents say. "I didn't come here for America. I came here to get a passport and go back to Turkey, Saudi or wherever I want," Alwan allegedly said.
Experts said Alwan's and Hammadi's history of attacking U.S. troops should have been detected earlier. The FBI "may have done a good job preventing an incident. But it should have never gotten to that status. I still don't understand how he was able to get into the country," said Frank Cilluffo, who was White House domestic security advisor to President George W. Bush and is now the director of a domestic security studies program at George Washington University.
Iraqi refugees in the U.S. have come under renewed scrutiny in the last year and a half, ever since serious gaps were identified in the refugee vetting process. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told a House hearing in February that he had information that Al Qaeda in Iraq may have used the weaknesses to send operatives to the U.S.