By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two Iraqi men were arrested and charged in Kentucky with trying to help al Qaeda militants in their home country and one of the suspects was also charged for attacks on U.S. troops there, the Justice Department said on Tuesday.
Waad Ramadan Alwan, 30, was accused of taking part in roadside bomb attacks on U.S. troops between 2003 and 2006, linked in one such instance by fingerprints obtained by U.S. forces from a device that did not detonate.
He and a second Iraqi, Mohanad Shareef Hammadi, also were charged in a 23-count indictment for allegedly trying to provide support and weapons to an al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, in a sting operation subsequently run by U.S. authorities.
The two men entered the United States in 2009 after receiving refugee status. They were arrested last week in their current hometown of Bowling Green, Kentucky, and if convicted, could face life in prison, U.S. prosecutors said.
They both pleaded not guilty during a hearing in federal court in Kentucky and had lawyers appointed for them, according to court records. A detention hearing is scheduled for June 8.
A Department of Homeland Security official said there were gaps in the refugee screening process at the time Alwan and Hammadi were allowed in the country. The official said the gap had since been addressed.
"Today our vetting process considers a far broader range of information than it did in past years," the official said on the condition of not being further identified.
"Information being provided by applicants is now rigorously compared with a broader set of data, including additional intelligence information, to identify individuals who may have previously been unknown," the official said.
At the height of the U.S. war in Iraq, the Bush administration was under pressure to allow more refugees into the United States as they fled violence in their home country but security concerns were one reason for the slow pace.
SOURCE HELPED BUILD CASE
The FBI started investigating Alwan in September 2009 and nearly a year later began using a confidential source to talk with him about his activities in Iraq, which allegedly included using improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs, and sniper rifles to target U.S. troops.
During conversations with the source, Alwan said he worked at a power plant but often hid roadside bombs, according to court papers. He also allegedly boasted of attacking Hummers and Bradley fighting vehicles.
In one conversation, Alwan said he "didn't come here for America. I came here to get a passport and go back to Turkey, Saudi or wherever I want," according to court papers.
The FBI was able to identify two fingerprints that belonged to Alwan that were obtained from a part of an unexploded IED recovered in 2005 on a roadway near Bayji, Iraq, said court papers unsealed on Tuesday.
Alwan, 30, was charged with conspiracy to kill Americans overseas, distributing information about how to build and detonate IEDs and attempting to provide support to al Qaeda in Iraq, a loose affiliate of the late Osama bin Laden's group, among other charges.
The Justice Department declined to say what prompted the investigation. Both men were detained by Iraqi authorities in 2006 but the court papers did not describe why or how they were released.
As part of the investigation, U.S. authorities conducted a sting operation in which the two Iraqis believed they were helping provide weapons and money to al Qaeda militants in Iraq.
Alwan recruited Hammadi, 23, whom he described as a relative, to help provide support to the militants, according to court papers. The charges against Hammadi, focused on the sting only, are for attempting to provide material support and conspiracy to send weapons overseas.
Court papers said he described to the same confidential source that he had been arrested in Iraq after getting a flat tire shortly after he and others placed IEDs. No charges have been filed for his alleged role in such attacks.
The sting operation included picking up inert weapons like Stinger missiles and delivering them to locations where they believed the items would be shipped to al Qaeda operatives in Iraq, prosecutors said.
U.S. authorities said the money and weapons never left the country.
(Editing by Bill Trott and Peter Cooney)