Circle of Terror: Following the Trail of Deadly IEDs From Arizona to Iraq and Back

Circle of Terror: Following the Trail of Deadly IEDs From Arizona to Iraq and Back
Zac McDonald
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First of two parts.

In March, a jury in the U.S. District Court in Arizona convicted a 40-year-old Syrian man on four terrorism-related counts, stemming from his role during the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. The conviction capped a violent criminal odyssey that spanned 12 years and four continents.

The Justice Department called the case the first U.S. indictment of a weapon-maker from the Iraq war. Ahmed Alahmedalabdaloklah is scheduled for sentencing in August and faces life in prison.

His conviction brought the story’s Arizona connections full circle. The roadside bombs included parts made in Chandler. They killed more than 1,700 U.S. soldiers, including Ryan Haupt of Phoenix, and maimed thousands more, like Robert Bartlett of Gilbert. Many such bombs in Iraq incorporated Alahmedalabdaloklah’s designs. Agents in the FBI’s Phoenix office led the investigation of him.

The story is also part of a larger tale still unfolding in U.S. courts about who shares responsibility for these U.S. casualties. Part 1 follows the capture and conviction of the man who designed the bombs. Part 2 examines the role banks played in these tragedies.


Mid-morning. August 30, 2006. Baghdad’s Omar Street. A few shops were open along the busy artery that ran through a comfortable neighborhood a mile from the Tigris River.

Across the river, a squad of American GIs rolled out of its base at Baghdad International Airport and made the short trip to this place. But even short trips were never short. Not then, not there. Not with all the bombs.

The troops spilled out of an armored vehicle into the 100-degree heat. They broke the lock on 50 Omar Street, and scaled the stairs to the second-floor apartments.

For Staff Sergeant Todd Wilson, it was just another day. His team with the 423rd Infantry Regiment of the 106th Infantry Division were part of a campaign to clear the entire sprawling city of Baghdad, one building at a time.

“We were looking for specific components,” Wilson later testified in an Arizona courtroom. “Large amounts of cellphones, wiring, soldering equipment, analyzers, things of that nature … we knew were being used to make a device, explosives or anything.”

When he reached the second floor, electronics littered the place. He told his squad to secure the area.

Wilson’s eyes shot to a spectrum analyzer. It sat near a window overlooking the busy street. The military used it as a main supply route. Next to the electronic device laid radios that looked like those U.S. soldiers carried.

“The spectrum analyzer was significant because it detects frequencies that some of our equipment can use,” Wilson explained. “It would be able to emulate our frequency or interfere with a frequency.”

In Iraq in 2006, insurgent groups blew up IEDs using radio-controlled devices such as those found on toys, or more commonly, signals from cellphones. Specific signals on specific frequencies triggered the detonators. But bombers didn’t want their devices to go off too early or too late, so the transmissions were coded.

The U.S. military took countermeasures to jam those transmissions and thwart bombings. The spectrum analyzer at 50 Omar Street would prevent that.

Wilson immediately called his captain, as his squad stood watch.

Within two hours, a more sophisticated team arrived, led by William Huff, who served four tours in Iraq and retired as a colonel.

In 2006, Huff belonged to the Asymmetric Warfare Group, which studied the methods and tactics of the guerrilla units in Iraq. He led a strike team to systematically collect evidence from places just like 50 Omar Street.

The Army had learned it needed to preserve evidence better to glean vital information, Huff testified in Phoenix.

His team snapped on surgical gloves and looked for secret compartments in the walls, floors — everywhere. They mapped the apartment rooms and coded the GPS location. They captured hundreds of photographs and lifted fingerprints.

They bagged and tagged all the soldering irons, circuit boards, radios, computer equipment, switches, transmitters, receivers, and documents. Huff knew this discovery was important.

It stood out because of “the amount of material that we found on-site and the uniqueness of that material,” Huff testified. In his three years in Iraq, he’d not seen the same level of sophistication.

They took the haul over to Saddam Hussein’s old Ministry of Defense building, where the team bunked each night. There, they spread out all the material on the floor and began cataloging it.

Within two hours of Huff’s team packing up, a bomb ripped through the same Omar Street neighborhood. The explosion killed 24 civilians and injured 35, according to official reports catalogued by the online IntelCenter.

The group listed dozens of attacks that day in Iraq, including five IED explosions.

At that time, nobody in U.S. military, intelligence, or law enforcement circles had ever heard of Ahmed Alahmedalabdaloklah. They didn’t know they were looking for him. Yet.

He slipped away.

A soldier recovers the copper plates used to punch holes in armor during IED attacks. The military said this 2007 discovery was the largest of such EFPs (explosively formed penetrators) ever found in Iraq.EXPAND
A soldier recovers the copper plates used to punch holes in armor during IED attacks. The military said this 2007 discovery was the largest of such EFPs (explosively formed penetrators) ever found in Iraq.
Department of Defense

On October 17, 2006, Army Staff Sergeant Ryan Haupt of Phoenix rode in convoy in Baqubah, about 40 miles north of the capital, with the 1st Battalion, 68th Armored Division. A roadside bomb erupted under his vehicle. He was killed. He was 24. He had just married before he was deployed to “The Sandbox,” Iraq. Now his young bride, Nannette, was a widow.

The bomb that killed him was an emerging breed troops were finding. After troops added armor to the bottoms of their Humvees, insurgents placed conical copper plates atop their bombs.

The explosions would melt the plates. The heat would drive through the armor and spray shrapnel and molten copper through the cabins of military vehicles, like the one in which Haupt died.

The plates were coming from Iran, military commanders and intelligence reports began noting.

Lance Haupt, a Glendale truck driver and father of the fallen soldier, has sued Iran and some western banks that did business with Iranians.

“I don’t feel good about any of our troops being deployed anywhere. We’re told they are fighting for our freedoms, but they aren’t,” he said in an interview with Phoenix New Times. “It’s so angering to have our military act as missionary to these banks so they can rule the world. They are profiting from the lives and deaths of our children. They are absolutely satanic.”

Haupt described his son as headstrong. Ryan grew up in North Hollywood, California. He had reacted badly to his parents’ divorce. After moving to the Phoenix area, Ryan wanted to join the Army at age 17. His father eagerly signed the paperwork. Structure would be good.

“The last time I talked to him, he was in Chicago and decided to get married. I said, ‘Why don’t you have a real wedding and invite the family?’” Haupt recalled.

His son refused. He didn’t want to wait until after his deployment to Iraq, having just returned from South Korea.

Ryan Haupt was part of a three-man sniper team that conducted 200 combat missions together in Iraq. The Baqubah job in October 2006 was its last. All three died.

On the Fallen Heroes Project website, one of his aunts, Carol Lumpkin, said enlisting was the highlight of his life, which had been filled with letdowns. “He overcame all the disappointment and was a man,” she wrote.

Another aunt, Marilyn Haupt-Howald, remembers a happy and fun man, who had been born at 12 pounds with lanky limbs and “the bluest of eyes.”

“Ryan was a truly sweet, fun-hearted person with such a love for laughter, a cousin, Kristina Howald, wrote. “He always made sure that he would get you busting up.”

On April 6, 2007, Good Friday, a U.S. military convoy neared the Baghdad airport when an IED exploded, killing a 19-year-old private named Damian Lopez Rodriguez and two of his Army comrades.

Rodriguez was from Nogales. His high school pals in Tucson asked him why he was going to Iraq. He told them so he could put low-rider rims on the tanks. He was known for his jokes. A teacher told the Arizona Daily Star, “We’ve lost a good one.”

The same day, in another part of the Iraqi capital, another bomb exploded under the vehicle carrying another 19-year-old, Daniel Fuentes of New York.

Fuentes’ parents also joined the class-action lawsuit against the banks, because the device had the hallmarks of an Iranian-made weapon.

By 2007, U.S. officials were better at finding clues amid the smoking rubble. They, along with the British, Australians, and Iraqis, had created Joint Task Force Troy, and assigned nearly 900 military and civilian personnel to its mission: Stamp out the IED threat.

One of its units was called the Combined Explosive Exploitation Cell, known better as CEXC, or the “Sexy Team.” It comprised military bomb experts, as well as FBI and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents.

The unit’s job was to rush to a bombing and glean as much forensic evidence as possible. From it, they could pinpoint the bomb and its controlling devices and maybe also the bomb-makers and insurgent group that planted it.

They had to recover evidence quickly. It was a war zone. They couldn’t be as meticulous as they would at a crime scene back home. Insurgents targeted the initial responders to attacks with secondary attacks of mortars and sniper fire.

With CEXC’s analysis, the military could target an insurgent group, and federal agents could start developing a criminal case.

By now, the FBI had set up a new nerve center in Quantico focused on diffusing the bomb threat. The Bureau established the Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center, or TEDAC, in 2003.

The Omar Street cache went there. Now, seven months later, the CEXC team was poring over a crater near Baghdad’s airport, where Damian Rodriguez with his unit from the 18th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division had just died.

The Sexy Team found something. The circuit boards and transmission devices resembled closely, if not perfectly, those CEXC had analyzed from Omar Street, federal agents later claimed.

A month later, another IED blew up a half-mile from Omar Street, killing one U.S. soldier. They found the same electronics in that bomb.

The parts came from everyday devices — cellphones, radios, remote-controlled toy cars, key fobs, garage door openers, robot vacuum cleaners. TEDAC, CEXC, and their military counterparts knew they were being adapted for roadside bombs.

And they knew each design, each combination of components and circuits, was like a bomb-designer’s fingerprint.

One telltale was the use of technology that enabled push-button telephones, and much later, cellphones. When you push the buttons, something has to tell the phone to dial the right number.

That’s done by a microchip on an integrated circuit board, which creates a coded dual-tone multi-frequency, or DTMF. This was how insurgents told IEDs to go off. Wrong code, wrong frequency — no explosion.

“Without encryption, anybody could deliberately or accidentally blow up any bomb,” said one ATF agent familiar with IEDs in Iraq, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of ongoing investigations. “You didn’t want to blow yourself up or be blown up, so you need something to distinguish the signals.”

That something is DTMF.

As the military developed countermeasures to neutralize the signals, Iraqi insurgents came up with new systems. The military began assigning labels: DTMF-1 for the first generation, DTMF-2 for the second, and so on. By 2006, they were seeing DTMF-11 devices.

The soldiers found DTMF-11 devices found on Omar Street and in the craters nearby and at the airport the next year.

These bombings had the electrical engineering fingerprint of Alahmedalabdaloklah, the U.S. government claimed.

But the FBI had something else. The man’s real fingerprints. Agents later testified 26 of the man’s confirmed prints matched those lifted on Omar Street from electric tape, notebooks, and a manual on how to assemble the electronics to power an IED.

Alahmedalabdaloklah was designing DTMF-11 systems, agents said.

The manhunt was on.

The bombings just continued. Day upon day. Relentlessly.

In 2007, U.S. forces caught a major break.

They were investigating a brazen attack in Karbala. Insurgents, posing as allies, got into a U.S. base, lobbed grenades, captured four soldiers, and killed them as they fled across the Euphrates River.

Two months later, on March 20, 2007, coalition forces captured two of the masterminds. One was a Hezbollah leader named Ali Musa Daqduq.

He was found with a 22-page memo detailing the plans for the attack and who approved it. He also kept a journal, which logged IED attacks and described coordination with other factions, whom the U.S. collectively called the Iraqi Special Groups.

The U.S. government claimed Daqduq “was in Iraq working as a surrogate for Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force operatives involved with special groups.”

The Quds Force is an elite unit within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. It was tasked with exporting the Islamic Revolution by supporting proxy wars like Iraq’s conflict.

U.S. forces had a year earlier seized the Quds Force’s third highest-ranking commander. He detailed for his captors “the import of sophisticated weaponry from Iran to Iraq.”

American officials said Daqduq admitted he worked with Quds leaders to plan and train for the Karbala attack, and that spy satellites spotted a training center near Qom, Iran, which contained a mockup of the U.S. base.

The U.S. said it now knew that Iranian-made IEDs were killing its soldiers in Iraq, that Iran’s crack paramilitary unit had trained insurgents fighting in Iraq, and that Iranian money being laundered through western banks was helping pay for it.

In October 2007, the U.S. government declared the Quds Force a terrorist organization.

Teams from Combined Joint Task Force Troy display a cache of components used to make IEDs in a 2007 discovery. This is similar to the cache found on 50 Omar Street in Baghdad in 2006, which led to the prosecution of a Syrian bomb-maker in Arizona.EXPAND
Teams from Combined Joint Task Force Troy display a cache of components used to make IEDs in a 2007 discovery. This is similar to the cache found on 50 Omar Street in Baghdad in 2006, which led to the prosecution of a Syrian bomb-maker in Arizona.
Department of Defense


By 2007, as the FBI’s bomb lab TEDAC sifted through bomb parts, Ahmed Alahmedalabdaloklah, the suspected IED engineer, had long since fled Iraq, through Syria, to China. Now, federal agents were on the man’s trail, and part of that trail led back to Arizona. The FBI shifted its probe to Phoenix.

In January 2010, the FBI entered the Syrian’s fingerprints into its database and matched them to the Omar Street electronics workshop.

FBI Special Agent Dina McCarthy, a former Army intel officer, was now working in the Bureau’s Phoenix field office. She began poring over the Baghdad evidence to trace Alahmedalabdaloklah, who went by numerous aliases, including Ahmad Al-Ahmad.

McCarthy told a federal judge in Arizona in an affidavit she suspected Al-Ahmad of supporting terrorists. The court sealed her statement and the government pursued the Syrian in secret.

“Numerous documents found at Al-Ahmad’s residence clearly indicate that Al-Ahmad was interested in improving the functionality of his IED designs by incorporating innovative technologies and advanced electronic components,” McCarthy later swore in a new affidavit.

The government described 50 Omar Street as one of the biggest and most significant troves of evidence ever recovered during the Iraq conflict.

“Without his technology, without his advancing the technology, their devices would not have been as effective as they were,” said the ATF agent familiar with the case.

In early 2010, Phoenix FBI agents got a court order to access three email accounts used by Alahmedalabdaloklah.

The FBI teamed up with something called Task Force Quiet Storm. The task force paired the Army’s National Ground Intelligence Center and the Department of Commerce. The group targeted foreign IED networks and investigated how they procured adaptable technology with export restrictions.

The FBI looked at a string of emails from 2008 and 2009. In them, Alahmedalabdaloklah discussed orders, procurements, invoices and shipments of cellphones, circuit boards, signal-jamming devices, magnets, and other devices. Many were turning up at bombing sites in Iraq.

Agents read a 2009 email sent to Alahmedalabdaloklah from a man bearing an Iraqi passport. That man was “a major distributor of IED initiators,” the FBI said in court documents.

In April 2010, coalition forces picked up the man as part of an operation against a leader of the 1920 Revolutionary Brigades.

The 1920 Revolutionary Brigades formed after the U.S.-led invasion and took its name from a revolt against British occupation 80 years earlier. It was composed of Sunni Muslims, many part of Saddam’s regime.

The Sunni faction and the Shiite-dominated Iraq Special Forces were hostile toward each other. But they shared a foe: the United States and its occupying forces.

The 1920 Brigades claimed responsibility in online publicity material for about 230 IED attacks on U.S. forces, the FBI said in court.

Improvised bombs killed 43 Arizona soldiers, nearly half of the state’s 99 military fatalities in Iraq, according to a New Times analysis of data compiled by iCasualties.org from the Pentagon’s monthly reports. Among U.S. forces, 1,721, or nearly 40 percent, died in IED attacks.

In July 2010, the FBI got another break, when forces captured a man called Muhammad Husayn ‘Ali Ways, a relative of the wanted 1920 Brigades leader.

Ways identified Al-Ahmad to FBI agents from a photo. He told them Alahmedalabdaloklah was a member of the Brigade and had fled with his wife and child.

He had introduced Alahmedalabdaloklah to Brigades leaders in 2005 or 2006, and afterward Alahmedalabdaloklah confided to him he “would do anything against Americans.” Ways told the FBI he knew the Syrian was designing DTMF boards to trigger IEDs for the Brigades.

“Ways described Al-Ahmad (Alahmedalabdaloklah) as wealthy, greedy, private, and not trusting of anyone,” as someone who sold the IED components only for the money, the FBI said.

The Bureau noted that Ways had contacted Alahmedalabdaloklah days before his arrest. He warned the exile the U.S. was looking for him and had captured the Brigades leader who paid him for IED parts.

In November 2008, Alahmedalabdaloklah swapped emails with an Iraqi named Jamal Al-Dhari. Al-Dhari’s uncle funded and helped the 1920 Brigades, Interpol said. The U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted the man, claiming he was providing material support to al-Qaida in Iraq.

In one email, Al-Dhari and Alahmedalabdaloklah discussed sending 10 transmitters and 100 receivers to Iraq. In another, Alahmedalabdaloklah told him he could send magnets from China by boat. Iraqi insurgents were using them to affix bombs to car chassis.

Al-Dhari would play an intriguing role when the case went to trial.

Meanwhile, the work at Quantico bore fruit, too. The experts at TEDAC, the FBI’s counter-bomb center, had sifted through the Omar Street evidence.

It included diagrams and technical notes on how to incorporate a Microchip PIC l6F84A and a DTMF decoder chip in bomb electronics.

“This design is typical of many IED circuits employed in Iraq,” the FBI swore in court.

A Chandler company, Microchip Technology Inc., produced all the microcontroller and semiconductors with “PIC” in the model number.

Now the FBI had jurisdiction, a reason to try Alahmedalabdaloklah in Arizona.

The CEXC teams had found IEDs using semiconductors from a New Hampshire company. By now, the Microchip PICI6F84A was showing up in radio-controlled IEDs, the FBI said, attributing the shift “to research done by Al-Ahmad (Alahmedalabdaloklah).”

The Chandler company was blindsided.

“Microchip Technology is appalled by the possible use of our products in such activities. Microchip continues to actively assist government agencies responsible for tracking down and closing supply lines to these entities. Microchip is prohibited from interviews or further statements on this matter,” the company’s public relations manager, Eric Lawson said in an email after the indictment was unsealed.

He did not return a request to comment for this story.

Federal prosecutors first charged Alahmedalabdaloklah under seal on May 10, 2011. But they still didn’t have their man.

Eight days later, Interpol issued a Red Notice saying Alahmedalabdaloklah was wanted for prosecution in the United States on terrorism charges. The same day, Turkish authorities seized him at Istanbul Ataturk Airport as he stepped off an Emirates Airlines plane from China.

Interpol described Alahmedalabdaloklah as a businessman and an engineer with seven aliases and three birthdates. He spoke Arabic, English, and Chinese, and had dealings in Iraq, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Yemen, Turkey, Malaysia, and Thailand.

The FBI said his Chinese export business processed orders for clients in in Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen, all terrorism hot spots.

Over the next two weeks, a Turkish lower court ordered he remain in jail. He appealed, lost, and set off a protracted extradition battle.

He languished in Turkish custody, as his case worked its way through the courts to the country’s supreme court and Council of Ministers. Alahmedalabdaloklah lost every appeal. When the U.S. Justice Department added charges to the indictment, the process began anew.

In March 2013, Alahmedalabdaloklah entered a hunger strike to protest the delays from the Council of Ministers. A month later he gave up, ended the hunger strike, and accepted a lower court ruling to extradite him.

But the delays continued, and a top Justice Department official had to fly to Turkey to help the diplomatic corps resolve them.

Finally in June 2014, the Turkish Ministry of Justice notified the U.S. that the Council of Ministers had agreed to extradite Alahmedalabdaloklah.

He was turned over to the U.S. embassy in Ankara on August 27, 2014, three years after his arrest.

The trial of the accused Syrian bomb-maker began in Phoenix in January.EXPAND
The trial of the accused Syrian bomb-maker began in Phoenix in January.
Lynn Trimble


Getting Alahmedalabdaloklah to Arizona to stand trial only began his legal odyssey. He spent as long in an undisclosed U.S. cell awaiting trial as he did in a Turkish one awaiting extradition.

From the beginning, the drawn-out legal battle was confrontational.

His first courtroom appearance, in September 2014, lasted just two minutes. That was enough for defense attorneys to demand the U.S. District Court in Arizona refer to him by the name on his passport, not his indictment.

Alahmedalabdaloklah pleaded not guilty on all six charges.

After dozens of defense motions failed to get the case or individual charges thrown out, it inched toward a trial date in early 2018.

Alahmedalabdaloklah’s attorneys sought to bar evidence from detainees, emails, and bomb sites. They sought to curb the use of incendiary words such as terrorist or jihadist, and prevailed.

Defense attorneys had other successes.

They tried to block soldiers testifying about those two fatal explosions in 2007, near Omar Street and the airport. The FBI linked the devices to the Syrian defendant.

Prosecutors argued the bombings were relevant because they were only trying to prove conspiracy to use IEDs, and the types of electronics found in the bomb craters were only found in IED attacks.

The government had consistently said the DTMF-11 components were a “match” or “almost identical” to those found on Omar Street. But now they were saying they were merely “very similar.”

Defense attorneys argued that prosecutors were “walking away” from their claims that Alahmedalabdaloklah contributed to the bombings.

“It is difficult to imagine more powerfully prejudicial testimony than testimony about the deaths of U.S. soldiers,” the defense argued. “The government evidently intends to introduce this evidence without … producing any evidence showing he is responsible for them.”

The federal judge agreed, having expressed concern that a mistrial could result from inflammatory evidence that doesn’t “connect up” to the defendant. “I don’t want any mistrials here,” U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver said.

Prosecutors now said they wanted to use the forensic evidence from the explosions to show that “custom-made DTMF-11 boards like those found at Omar Street and on April 6 and May 14” in 2007 were used exclusively to control IEDs.

They argued that the soldiers’ testimony was not “unfairly” prejudicial.

Judge Silver ruled soldiers could not testify about their injuries or experiences in the bombings, only about the authenticity of the circuit boards they found there.

The ruling influenced the outcome.

During discovery, it came out that CEXC and TEDAC had processed two other large electronics caches, and recovered DTMF boards and other components consistent with bombings.

“The use of DTMF-11s in IEDs was pervasive in Iraq. Indeed, the FBI reports that were 381 such circuits found by coalition forces during the time period November 19, 2005, to December 27, 2006, alone, and that of those 381, fully 119 of them were ‘nearly identical’ to boards found at 50 Omar Street,” defense attorneys argued.

“The sheer number of such devices found throughout the country — an average of apparently one a day — makes it implausible that any one person or group of individuals working closely together could be responsible for all of them,” defense lawyers added.

But the proliferation of devices could suggest Alahmedalabdaloklah was the prolific master-designer the government claimed he was. Agents said they found instruction manuals and diagrams he’d left behind. The government said it was “ironic” the defense now brought it up.

The two teams readied themselves for trial.

The defense prepared more than 800 exhibits. Prosecutors amassed almost 1,800 exhibits and readied more than 100 witnesses. The defense readied about 20.

One was U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican on the Armed Services Committee.

Defense lawyers wanted to know why he met with Jamal Al-Dhari, the nephew of the 1920 Revolution Brigades leader. They also wanted all of the senator’s documents relating to the 1920 Brigades.

The defense asked to subpoena Graham. The judge reluctantly agreed, but advised Graham how to skirt the order. Graham moved to quash it, and the U.S. Senate passed a spot resolution granting him legal support.

Finally, Graham proffered a written statement that he’d met with Al-Dhari in 2017, and left it that. Defense lawyers accepted it.

They were less pleased with the outcome of efforts to bring Alahmedalabdaloklah’s assistant from China.

Guo Xu lived in Guangzhou. She told public defenders she wanted to testify to help Alahmedalabdaloklah, but asked to be deposed in Hong Kong instead of mainland China.

Xu was to tell jurors that the company, Qimitaj, was legitimate. In texts, she told defense lawyers that Qimataj offered home electronics to families. A photo she sent attorneys shows the small shop selling boom boxes, cellphones, and computer accessories.

Then Xu backed out, suddenly.

Prosecutors, who were arranging to travel to Hong Kong, told the public defender’s office that they had no idea why.

It turned out Hong Kong police objected to “the presence of foreign law enforcement officials” and the DOJ’s Office of International Affairs told counterparts of the trip as a routine, but required diplomatic courtesy.

Xu never appeared.

The federal public defender’s office filed a motion to dismiss the case, claiming the government had improperly meddled with a defense witness.

Circuitry of a cellphone recovered from Iraq and analyzed by the FBI’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center as part of the investigation of Ahmed Alahmedalabdaloklah. This image was entered into evidence.
Circuitry of a cellphone recovered from Iraq and analyzed by the FBI’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center as part of the investigation of Ahmed Alahmedalabdaloklah. This image was entered into evidence.
Court records filed in U.S. District Court in Arizona

The case went to trial in January. It consumed 23 days in court.

“Ahmed Alahmedalabdaloklah conspired with others to kill military personnel in Iraq using remote-controlled improvised explosive devices. These devices were sophisticated. They included electronics that required technical expertise to operate,” federal prosecutor Joseph Kaster began.

He told the jury how Alahmedalabdaloklah met and got involved with the 1920 Revolution Brigades because they shared the belief that U.S. forces were enemy occupiers.

He had a special skill. He could rig electronic components to transmit signals and set off IEDs, Kaster argued.

He told jurors about 50 Omar Street. “It was an IED switch factory, because it was a place where not just one, not just two, but dozens of these circuit boards for IEDs could be made,” he said.

Kaster deflected the longstanding defense objection, the linkage between 50 Omar Street and the two fatal IED bombings nearby in 2007.

“He’s not charged with the murder of a particular individual on a particular day by placing a bomb on the ground,” Kaster pointed out.

Then-defense attorney Jami Johnson faced the jury, and told them of the omissions.

“You’re not going to hear any evidence that any harm ever came to any United States citizen or any piece of United States property as a result of anything that Mr. Oklah did. Not ever,” Johnson began, deliberately using a Westernized version of the Syrian’s name.

“You’re also not going to hear that anything that Mr. Oklah ever sold or ever touched was ever actually turned into an IED, an improvised explosive device. Nothing,” she continued, adding, “Lastly, you are not going to hear that Mr. Oklah has ever, in his entire life, made a single anti-American statement.”

Johnson told jurors how her client was born in Syria in 1977 and his family fled the murderous dictatorship of Hafez al-Assad, father of the current incumbent.

She described her client as a man, driven by his second-class immigrant status to get ahead, who started an electronics shop to provide for his young family.

He was 25 with a wife and small child when the 2003 war began. Saddam Hussein did not allow cellphones, so a huge market opened after the invasion, and Alahmedalabdaloklah sought to fill it. He had no reason to hate Americans.

As Iraq’s security deteriorated, he decided to relocate his legitimate business to China where he could get cheap parts.

“We’re here as a result of a long series of mistakes, rushes to judgment, and failures to investigate,” Johnson said, turning to the Omar Street discovery.

She said troops incorrectly assumed her client lived there, used the place to make bombs and that those bombs targeted U.S. soldiers. In fact, the documents were school reports and homework, the electronics something typically scavenged in the chaos that ravaged post-invasion Iraq.

“It was this an unfortunate, and ultimately incorrect, snap judgment that then dictated the course of the investigation,” Johnson told jurors. “We’re asking you for the next few weeks to do what the government in this case has not done, which is to keep an open mind.”

At issue in trial: Did a Syrian man help create roadside bombs like these that killed American soldiers?
At issue in trial: Did a Syrian man help create roadside bombs like these that killed American soldiers?
Department of Defense

One of the first witnesses to take the stand was Jamal Al-Dhari, whose deposition had been recorded in the Latvian capital Riga in 2017. He declined to travel to Arizona to testify.

Al-Dhari was the man with close family ties to the leadership of the 1920 Revolution Brigades, a friend was Saddam Hussein’s ambassador to Russia.

He knew Alahmedalabdaloklah as Mukhtar.

He said he helped get the engineer a passport in 2008 and then communicated with him in China to arrange shipment of 10 transmitters and 100 receivers.

“The resistance were in need for those devices, and they used to use them with bombs to explode them through remote controls,” Al-Dhari testified, explaining they needed more receivers because they get destroyed in the explosions.

He was unapologetic.

“I believe that either Mukhtar (Alahmedalabdaloklah) or the resistance did not commit any crime,” Al-Dhari testified. “It is a right for anybody or any side to resist an invasion or occupation to their country.”

The FBI first approached him in Riga in June 2016 and “shocked him.” Agents told him they had arrested the Syrian but not why. He assumed it had to do with his role in the resistance, and went to Turkey to try to free him.

The defense said Al-Dhari was not a freedom fighter, but a well-heeled, ambitious man, the kind that can call in favors from the Americans.

“Mr. Al-Dhari is a very wealthy Iraqi citizen who lives in Latvia. Mr. Al-Dhari is a man with political ambitions. He’s not in hiding,” defense attorney Jami Johnson told the jury.

“So why are people who conspire to kill American citizens being invited to the United States to talk to senators and congressmen?” she added.

Al-Dhari testified he met with Graham and U.S. Congressman Ed Royce, a California Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Al-Dhari said he also met with the FBI on four occasions, including twice in Washington, D.C., where he runs a public relations office, but that agents never offered him anything for his testimony.

Then on March 7, prosecutors disclosed he was in the country, 19 days into the trial.

Three court days later, the jury had the case. It deliberated three more.

The panel convicted Alahmedalabdaloklah of the first four counts: conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, conspiracy to destroy U.S. property with an explosive, conspiring to possess a destructive device for a criminal act, and aiding and abetting those who possessed such a device.

Jurors said Alahmedalabdaloklah was not guilty of conspiring to kill Americans abroad or providing material support to terrorists — the two most serious charges.

The defense filed a motion for a retrial, based on “new evidence,” the sudden arrival of Al-Dhari. There has been no ruling.

The case against Ahmed Alahmedalabdaloklah, the first of its kind, has sent a warning among U.S. counterterror circles.

“This guy was an international weapons dealer, only instead of sending guns, he shipped circuit boards,” said the ATF agent on condition of anonymity.

“These are sophisticated electronic devices designed to be complex. You really don’t get any sophistication like this anywhere else,” he added. “It’s limitless with cellphones, this technology. That’s the terrifying part.”


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