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FBI says at deportation hearing that Iraqi refugee Omar Ameen has ties to terror groups

Omar Ameen. (U.S. Attorney's Office)

The federal government’s effort to deport Sacramento resident and Iraqi refugee Omar Ameen kicked into gear Wednesday, with a former FBI agent testifying that Ameen and his family members had been involved in terrorist activities with the group that evolved into the Islamic State.

William Denton, who had served as the lead FBI agent on the Ameen investigation, said during an immigration hearing in Van Nuys that information from the U.S. Department of Defense and from Iraqi government officials tied Ameen and his family members to al Qaeda in Iraq, which ultimately became the Islamic State.

“We were concerned, in particular, because the information from the Department of Defense indicated to us that his family members were actively engaged in terrorism, which was corroborated through our information that we obtained when we reached out to our partners within the government of Iraq,” Denton testified.

“In particular, the government of Iraq provided us with official documentation from their counter-terrorism service which indicated and corroborated the Department of Defense information that Mr. Ameen, as well as members of his immediate family and paternal cousins, were actively involved in terrorist activity from the inception of al Qaeda in Iraq to the present day.”

Denton was testifying during the third day of hearings over whether Ameen should be deported back to Iraq, where Iraqi officials have accused him of killing a police officer in 2014 before he emigrated later that year to the United States.

Ameen and his lawyers have denied Ameen had anything to do with terror groups or the slaying of the officer in his hometown of Rawah, insisting that evidence shows he was nowhere near where the officer was killed at the time and that some witnesses in Iraq had lied about his background and created forged documents.

Iraqi and U.S. officials had been working to extradite Ameen back to his home country to stand trial in the slaying, but a federal magistrate judge in Sacramento ruled in April that the government’s claims were “dubious” and ordered Ameen’s immediate release from the Sacramento County Main Jail.

Instead, immigration officials removed Ameen from the jail and drove him to custody at a federal immigration facility in Kern County, where he has been held as he appears by video for the deportation hearing that began with a one-day session in May.

The hearing resumed Tuesday with largely technical arguments over evidence, and Denton’s remarks Wednesday marked the first testimony on the government’s claims that Ameen had ties to terror and had lied about his background to enter the United States from Turkey and eventually settle in Sacramento with his family.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials contend Ameen lied in attempting to obtain refugee status, declaring that his father was shot to death in 2010 because he had cooperated with coalition forces fighting terror groups.

The government contends Ameen’s father actually died later of natural causes, and that Ameen confirmed that in an interview Denton conducted with him.

“His story changed over the course of the interview,” Denton said. “At the beginning of the interview, Mr. Ameen told us a detailed story about his father being shot to death.

“However, later in the interview Mr. Ameen verified that his father died of natural causes. I don’t specifically recall if he gave an answer as to why his story changed.”

The government also contends he claimed falsely that one of his 10 brothers had been kidnapped by masked men in 2012.

But Denton said Ameen had posted a photo of him and that brother on Facebook while in Turkey in 2014 and that he later changed his story to say he “hadn’t been kidnapped, he’d been arrested.”

“Based off the results of the investigation, the information received from our Department of Defense colleagues, from the government of Iraq, as well as several independent witnesses, we concluded that the information demonstrated that Omar Ameen had personally engaged in numerous acts of terrorism in and around the Rawah area starting in (2004) until as late as potentially 2009,” Denton said, adding that Ameen’s family members “had engaged in multiple acts of terrorism.”

Ameen’s defense team says the government is misrepresenting Ameen’s statements and that information provided by Iraq is not credible. They also have warned that if Ameen is returned to Iraq he faces the possibility of being executed.

His case has spawned international attention, with Sacramento city leaders and others urging the Biden administration to release Ameen.

His supporters also have sued the federal government in a Freedom of Information Act suit to obtain records they say will prove his innocence, and have created a website, freeomarameen.com, aimed at building support for his release.

Ameen is expected to testify on his own behalf, but that may not take place for weeks or months.

Assistant Chief Immigration Judge Scott Laurent said the deportation hearing would resume Aug. 24-25 and again in September.

Ameen was arrested in an FBI raid on his Arden Arcade apartment in August 2018 and has been in custody ever since.

Denton testified Wednesday that “multiple family members” of Ameen’s “had been detained by the Department of Defense for terrorist-related activity,” including a cousin who “was a key participant” in the al-Zarqawi terror network, a finding he described as “extremely alarming.”

He also testified that the FBI investigation turned up two Iraqi arrest warrants for Ameen’s arrest related to terrorism and another warrant for the slaying of the officer.

Denton said a search of Ameen’s Arden Arcade apartment in 2018 turned up a list of locations in Baghdad that appeared to reflect areas in which ISIS had conducted attacks there, as well as electronic searches on one of Ameen’s devices.

“There are numerous search terms related to ISIS and other terrorist propaganda or messaging, and it appeared those search terms were dated the day before Mr. Ameen departed Turkey for the United States,” Denton said.

He added that agents also found communications between Ameen and one of his brothers of an electronic switch, which could have been an everyday switch or “a key component for explosive devices.”

Ameen’s lawyers have insisted he had no ties to terror and that it was physically impossible for him to have killed the officer in 2014 because he was in Turkey at the time awaiting permission to move to the United States.

Turkish cellphone records they obtained from that period showed he was not in Iraq when the officer was killed, his lawyers have said.

Siobhan Waldron, Ameen’s immigration attorney, objected to documents the government was using, arguing that they are not original documents and failed to include all pages.

Government attorney Sean Kersten said the documents being used had arrived via diplomatic pouch from Iraq.

But federal defender Rachelle Barbour, who along with federal defender Ben Galloway won the order for Ameen’s release in Sacramento, was tweeting from court that there are other problems with the documents.

“DHS brought in originals of some documents.” she tweeted. “But they don’t match the copies that FBI gave to them and that DHS filed with the court. They bear the serious burden to make a clear and convincing record.”

“This is much more than just nit picky — FBI was repeatedly given forgeries from Iraqi sources,” Barbour tweeted. “Signatures were forged, entire ‘official docs’ were created from thin air.”

Siobhan’s cross examination of Denton lasted only briefly as she sought access to other witness interviews and statements Denton conducted in his investigation, but the DHS lawyer said Denton was prohibited by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Sacramento from providing such information.

“If the witness will not answer his testimony is pointless, completely useless and we move to strike his testimony on direct (questioning),” Waldron said.

Waldron attempted to continue, asking Denton if he had written any memos about his interview with Ameen, but the government objected again and said he could not answer.

Denton said he had been instructed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office not to answer any questions not related to a May 26, 2020, 58-page memo the government submitted on the investigation.

“I was instructed not to open the door in any way,” he said.

The government continued to object to Waldron’s questions — including who drafted the memo and whether Denton himself wrote it.

“I don’t understand why he can’t be asked questions in more probing detail about the memo,” the judge said. “I can’t force him to answer and I won’t. But we’re going to have to address that in more detail.”

Waldron said she would address the dispute in writing and ask that Denton’s testimony not be admitted, while the DHS attorney said he would consult with the U.S. Attorney’s office that had originally sought Ameen’s extradition.

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