BOWLING GREEN — While an Iraqi refugee spent two years in the United States plotting to help al-Qaida attack American soldiers in Iraq, court documents say, federal authorities unknowingly had evidence that linked him to a roadside bomb in his home country in 2005.
National security experts said the 21-month lapse in linking fingerprints from the bomb to the suspect shows poor communication among the several agencies in charge of anti-terrorism efforts.
"That's very disturbing," said Charles Rose, a criminal and military law professor at Stetson Law School in Gulfport, Fla., who served as an Army intelligence officer and a judge advocate general. "That's a problem."
Even without the fingerprint match, the FBI had begun investigating Waad Ramadan Alwan, 30, a few months after he was allowed to come to the United States as a refugee. Still, experts say the crime-scene evidence from Iraq could have led to a faster arrest.
He and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi, 23, both of Bowling Green, were charged last week with plotting to send explosives, guns and missiles to Iraqi insurgents after an investigation that began in September 2009. Neither is charged with plotting to launch attacks inside the United States, and authorities said their weapons and money didn't make it to Iraq.
Alwan's fingerprints had been lifted off an improvised explosive device near Bayji, Iraq, in September 2005.
Before he entered the United States as a refugee in April 2009, he had to provide a set of fingerprints for a security check. A statement from the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged that authorities failed to connect the fingerprints until January.
"Rarely do you get that much evidence," said Frank Cilluffo, director of a homeland security studies program at George Washington University who was a White House domestic security adviser to President George W. Bush. "It's that much more troubling that it wasn't caught."
Alwan and Hammadi, also a refugee, entered the United States four months apart in 2009. The FBI and federal prosecutors wouldn't say how the two were granted refugee status and wouldn't address why Alwan's fingerprints weren't matched sooner to those taken off the IED.
Iraqis seeking refugee status in the United States have two ways to get it. One is to apply through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program; the other is via an exemption that is made for those who assisted U.S. forces.
Applicants must show they have a fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion. They must submit to an interview by an immigration officer and undergo two security checks.
Almost 19,000 Iraqi refugees were allowed into the United States in 2009, accounting for more than a quarter of all refugees admitted that year and the highest number of Iraqis on record. In 2010, the number totaled 18,016.
A Department of Homeland Security official said Tuesday the gaps that allowed Alwan and Hammadi to slip in have been filled.
The official said Homeland Security started comparing applicant information against a broader set of data after the arrest of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who has been accused of trying to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 by using a bomb in his underwear. Authorities have worked backward on prior applicants to run fingerprint matches.
Court documents say Alwan told an informant working for the FBI that he began insurgent activities in Iraq in 2003 and was captured by Iraqi officials in May 2006.
State Department statistics show that 230 Iraqi refugees resettled in Bowling Green from October 2007 to June 11, 2010.
Elizabeth Sholar, a teacher at Western Kentucky University, said Wednesday she thinks both men lived upstairs from her in a four-unit apartment building not far from busy Scottsville Road.
The apartment was listed to Hammadi, but another Iraqi lived there with him, Sholar said.
Sholar said she didn't know the men's names but thinks Alwan was staying there because she hasn't seen either man since last week, when agents arrested the two.
A dark Ford F-150 pickup that one of the men drove, with an Iraqi flag hung from the rearview mirror, hasn't been moved since last week, Sholar said.
She said the two men who lived upstairs were quiet and didn't cause problems. They spoke to her in passing and held the door as she came in with groceries or her dogs.
"They were nice, from what little was said," Sholar said.