Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, left, and his staff watch as investigators haul away… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)
WASHINGTON — Waad Ramadan Alwan was a talker. To an undercover FBI informant, he described planting improvised explosive devices to harm American soldiers in Iraq. He told about how he recruited a friend to help smuggle arms and cash overseas. He said he hoped to return to Iraq to fight again. Instead, in January he got 40 years in prison.
Mohanad Shareef Hammadi did his talking in court, where he admitted helping in a dozen IED attacks in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. "After 2003," he said, "I saw people that were dying on the streets — numerous, numerous people being killed and for no reason. It was just too much to bear." He got life with no parole.
Both men pleaded guilty in a plot to smuggle Stinger surface-to-air missiles and money to terrorists in Iraq from an unlikely site for two jihadists to surface — Bowling Green, Ky. Alwan also pleaded guilty to conspiring to kill Americans while he was living in Iraq.
It was the FBI's crime lab near Washington that helped do them in. After a request from federal officials in Kentucky, lab technicians discovered evidence tying Alwan to the use of an IED in Iraq.
The lab's Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center (TEDAC) at Quantico, Va., is little known outside the FBI. Bureau officials and Department of Justice prosecutors repeatedly declined to discuss details about its work or its role in the Kentucky case.
Since the center opened 10 years ago, its shelves have become weighed down with tens of thousands of parts and pieces of IEDs dug up by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some IEDs arrive in pristine condition, having never been detonated. Analysts dust them for fingerprints or traces of DNA, hoping to identify terrorists overseas.
As of last summer, when the FBI broke ground for a new IED testing facility to open next year at a military arsenal in Alabama, the effort had processed about 80,000 IED submissions. They found fingerprint or DNA matches on a few dozen. But it has been difficult to keep up with the pace because at their peak there have been as many as 4,000 IEDs attacks a year.
The case in Kentucky was all the more unusual because the match did not go back to a terrorist in Iraq but to someone in this country. Alwan, now 32, and Hammadi, 25, had been welcomed into the U.S. as Iraqi refugees who had been living in Syria.
Despite the surprise find in Bowling Green, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III warned that budget restraints could seriously hamper the IED program. He said that the bureau's budget allotment does not prioritize the program's funding, and that too few analysts were dealing with too many IEDs.
"We have a backlog of devices that we've picked up over the years that we're trying to run through," Mueller told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee in May.
What also could be lost, he said, is the sort of analysis that happened after the bombings at the Boston Marathon in April, when pieces of two pressure cookers were rushed to the explosives lab. "Very quickly — and by very quickly I mean within 24, 48 hours — we had identified the mechanisms, the containers, the kind of black powder, and were then tracing the various components, such as the pressure cookers, to determine who had purchased them where," Mueller said.
Some people say the FBI could save money and staff time by concentrating on domestic crimes rather than trying to help identify terrorists abroad in efforts better left to other agencies.
"We've got so much crime going on here in the United States; how much of the FBI's resources and personnel should be expended overseas?" asked James J. Wedick, a former FBI supervisor who managed the bureau's corruption unit in Sacramento. "We've gone from a U.S.-based agency to almost competing head-to-head with the CIA."
The case involving Alwan and Hammadi began in April 2009, when Alwan settled in Bowling Green. Hammadi followed two months later, and met Alwan through a friend in this country.
Working from a tip about Alwan's activities, the FBI had a confidential informant secretly record their conversations in which Alwan spoke at length about his IED work in Iraq, as well as a new plot to ship weapons and money to Iraq.
"He was being very braggadocio about what he had done back in Iraq, and was very knowledgeable about putting explosives together," said a government source, who asked not to be identified out of concern for revealing too much about undercover operations.
Agents found Alwan's refugee card for entry into the U.S., with his fingerprints, and in 2010 asked the explosives lab to look for any matches from IED parts recovered near Alwan's home in Iraq when he was there.
As it turned out, the IED part with Alwan's fingerprints had arrived at the lab in late 2005. Analysts examined it, but until then "it seemed to be of limited value," the source said. "There were so many others coming in of better quality and value."
But now they had a dead-on match with Alwan. It confirmed what Alwan had been telling the informant. In May 2011, Alwan and Hammadi were arrested on federal terrorism charges, prompting U.S. Atty. David J. Hale to say that dismantling terrorist networks was a top priority whether jihadists "seek shelter in a major metropolitan area or in a smaller city in Kentucky."
James Earhart, the attorney for Hammadi, said they had hoped for a 25-year sentence in return for his guilty plea. But he said his client had little to bargain with, other than saying he agreed to help Alwan load trucks with weapons because he was short on money.
Then prosecutors brought up evidence of Hammadi's involvement with a dozen IEDs in Iraq. After that, U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell gave him the maximum: life with no parole, and he was sent to the federal "supermax" prison in Colorado.