BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (AP) — An Iraqi man who pleaded guilty to terrorism charges in Kentucky was sentenced Tuesday to life in prison without parole and a co-defendant received a 40-year sentence for his role in a plot to ship weapons and cash to insurgents in Iraq.
Mohanad Shareef Hammadi, 25, protested U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell's decision to send him away for life while granting 30-year-old Waad Ramadan Alwan less time in prison. Hammadi told Russell about growing up poor in Bayji, Iraq, and said his role in the scheme was merely helping a friend load a truck for much-needed money.
Hammadi's attorney, James Earhart of Louisville, had sought 25 years in prison for his client and said he would appeal the life sentence.
"A 25-year-old getting a life sentence is a tragedy," Earhart said. "The life that he lived is a tragedy."
Hammadi and Alwan pleaded guilty in 2011 and 2012 to working with a man they thought was an insurgent in the United States to ship thousands in cash, machine guns, rifles, grenades and shoulder-fired missiles to al-Qaida in Iraq from 2010 through 2011. Prosecutors said the two were actually working with a confidential informant who recorded the pair's activities and no money or weapons ever left the United States.
The two were arrested in May 2011 in Bowling Green, Ky., after a federal sting operation.
Former Pennsylvania National Guard Sgt. Brandon Miller of Chadds Ford, Pa., described the sentences as "outstanding."
Ford received a Purple Heart for burn injuries sustained when his Humvee blew up after hitting a roadside bomb near Bayji, where Alwan and Hammadi admitted to planning explosives.
U.S. Attorney David Hale said if Alwan hadn't cooperated, he would also have gotten a life sentence, but his help was valuable to investigators.
Alwan's attorney, Scott Wendelsdorf, declined to comment after the hearing.
Prosecutors described Alwan as a seasoned terrorist in Iraq. They said he worked with the Mujahidin Shura Council, a violent group that claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, torture and deaths of two soldiers with the Fort Campbell-based 101st Airborne Division and the death of a third soldier from the same unit while they were patrolling about 60 miles south of Baghdad in June 2006.
Prosecutors linked Hammadi to Jaish al Mujahidin, also known as the Mujahidin Army, a group that claimed responsibility for shooting down American helicopters in Iraq in 2006 and 2007.
Alwan's sentencing went relatively smoothly, with prosecutors petitioning Russell for a lesser sentence because of the defendant's cooperation and guilty plea. But Hammadi's hearing grew contentious at times as prosecutors accused him of changing his story in an effort to secure less prison time.
At two points during the hearing, Justice Department prosecutor Larry Schneider confronted Hammadi after he changed his account of what happened in Iraq and later in Bowling Green. Hammadi told Russell he wasn't part of an insurgent group in Iraq, even though he told the confidential informant he took part in at least 11 improvised explosive-device attacks on U.S. soldiers.
Like Alwan, Hammadi pleaded guilty to falsifying immigration records by not disclosing insurgent activities, in order to get into the United States.
"You did lie on your immigration forms. ... Is that correct?" Schneider asked.
"Yes," Hammadi said after a long pause. "Because it was what you wanted to hear."
Hammadi described his comments to the confidential informant as "just talk" that prosecutors misunderstood.
"If I was asking you how many people in my country, my town were killed, what would you say?" Hammadi asked Schneider, who repeatedly described the defendant as a terrorist.
"Mr. Hammadi, you are facing a life sentence," Schneider replied. "You don't get to ask questions."
Alwan and Hammadi arrived in the United States in 2009. Both admitted to taking part in insurgent activities in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. Schneider said federal authorities became aware of Alwan when they found out he had been held in an Iraqi prison in June 2006 for insurgent activities. It is unclear how or why Alwan was released from prison. Later, federal authorities found his fingerprint on an unexploded bomb in Iraq and launched an investigation.
Alwan recruited Hammadi into the plot in January 2011 and the pair spent five months working with the informant, prosecutors said.
Russell describe Alwan as "eagerly joining the operations in Kentucky" and recruiting Hammadi as part of an attempt to lead a terrorist cell in the United States.
"His motivation was to help the insurgents in their activities," Schneider said.
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