BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (AP) — An Iraqi man who had claimed he was innocent of terrorism-related charges did an abrupt about-face Friday, pleading guilty in a Kentucky courtroom to trying to funnel weapons and cash to al-Qaida operatives in his home country.
Waad Ramadan Alwan, 30, appeared in federal court in this south-central Kentucky college town to plead guilty to conspiring to attack American soldiers in Iraq, conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to provide material support to terrorists.
Alwan was arrested in May in Bowling Green and had previously pleaded not guilty to charges in an indictment that also named fellow Iraqi Mohanad Shareef Hammadi.
Alwan's attorney, federal Public Defender Scott Wendelsdorf, declined to comment after the hearing.
"Today in open court, Waad Alwan admitted to engaging in terrorist activities both here in the United States and in Iraq," U.S. Attorney David J. Hale said in a statement. "He acknowledged he had built and placed numerous improvised explosive devices (IEDs) aimed at killing and injuring American soldiers in Iraq, and he admitted that he tried to send numerous weapons from Kentucky to Iraq to be used against American soldiers."
Hale said the joint efforts of federal and local law enforcement had thwarted "the ongoing intentions of an experienced terrorist."
"The guilty plea today sends a strong message to anyone who would attempt similar crimes that they will face the same determined law enforcement and prosecution efforts," he said.
Alwan, appearing in an orange jail jumpsuit and wearing leg irons and with an interpreter seated next to him, pleaded guilty to all 23 counts in the indictment against him.
At one point in the proceedings, Alwan nodded and quietly told the interpreter he understood the charges and possible penalties.
He faces a possible sentence of 25 years to life in prison when he is sentenced April 3.
Alwan pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals abroad, conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction against U.S. nationals abroad, distributing information on how to make and use improvised explosive devices, attempting to provide material support to terrorists and conspiracy to transfer, possess and export Stinger missiles.
Hammadi, 24, was not mentioned during the hearing, and no trial date has been set for him. He has pleaded not guilty. Hale declined to say whether Alwan would testify against his co-defendant. "We can't discuss that issue," he said.
Hammadi's attorney, James Earhart, said Friday that Alwan's guilty plea does not affect Hammadi's case. When asked if Hammadi might also plead guilty, Earhart said, "We're continuing to explore that, but we've not reached any agreement."
Before the hearing, Alwan rubbed his eyes occasionally and would sometimes rest his chin against one of his hands.
Responding to a litany of questions from Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell, Alwan offered a brief autobiographical sketch, saying he had a high school education and had been a chicken factory worker in the U.S. He showed no emotion before the hearing or while answering the questions from the judge.
Alwan and Hammadi were living as refugees in Kentucky when they were arrested after an investigation that began months after their arrival in the U.S. in 2009. Neither has been charged with plotting attacks within the United States, and authorities said their weapons and money didn't make it to Iraq because of a tightly controlled undercover investigation.
Alwan was also charged with conspiring to attack American soldiers in Iraq. Other charges include conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to provide material support to terrorists.
Hammadi is also charged with attempting to provide material support to terrorists and conspiring to transfer, possess and export Stinger missiles.
Alwan admitted to trying to supply al-Qaida in Iraq with a cache of weapons that included machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, plastic explosives, sniper rifles, Stinger surface-to-air missile launcher systems and grenades.
Authorities have said the weapons and money didn't make it to Iraq because of a tightly controlled undercover investigation.
"The successful investigation, arrest, interrogation and prosecution of Mr. Alwan demonstrates the effectiveness of our intelligence and law enforcement authorities in bringing terrorists to justice and preventing them from harming the American people," Lisa Monaco, assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement.
On multiple occasions, Alwan transferred money believing it would go to al-Qaida in Iraq for the purpose of killing Americans overseas, according to prosecutors. Alwan admitted to trying to feed the cash and weapons pipeline to al-Qaida from September 2010 through May 2011 from Kentucky.
While in Iraq, Alwan conspired with others to plant and detonate numerous roadside bombs against U.S. troops, according to the plea agreement and other court documents.
Alwan's fingerprints were lifted off an improvised explosive device found in Iraq in 2005. Before he entered the U.S. as a refugee in 2009, he had to provide a set of fingerprints for a security check.
Prosecutors said that from about 2003 through 2006, Alwan conspired to kill U.S. nationals in Iraq.
Alwan also drew diagrams of improvised explosive devices and provided detailed oral instructions on how to make and use them, prosecutors said, adding that the diagrams were intended to train others in how to make and use the bombs in order to kill Americans overseas.
Russell ruled in September that Alwan could be tried in civilian court, a matter that has escalated into a hot-button political issue.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pushed to have Alwan and Hammadi tried at the military-run prison at Guantanamo Bay. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said terrorism-related trials can be successfully handled by civilian courts.
"Today's plea of guilt by Alwan, who boasted of killing U.S. troops in a warzone overseas, and bragged that his 'lunch and dinner would be an American,' confirms that he was a combatant who was associated with enemy forces overseas," McConnell said in a statement issued Friday night. "The military should have had custody of him to begin with for purposes of intelligence, detention and punishment."
Alwan and Hammadi entered the United States through a refugee program in 2009.
Both have remained in federal custody since their arrests.
Associated Press writer Dylan Lovan contributed to this report from Louisville, Ky.