PHOENIX (AP) — A judge has certified the Iraqi government’s extradition request for a Phoenix driving school owner on charges that he participated in the killings of two police officers 15 years ago in the Iraqi city of Fallujah as the leader of an al-Qaida group, sending the extradition decision to Washington to decide.
In the decision issued Friday in Arizona, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Morrissey concluded there was probable cause that Ali Yousif Ahmed Al-Nouri, who came to the United States as a refugee in 2009 and became a U.S. citizen in 2015, participated in the killings carried out by masked men in June 2006 and October 2006.
The U.S. Department of Justice confirmed it has no record of having ever before extradited anyone to Iraq under a decades-old U.S.-Iraq treaty.
Despite inconsistencies in statements by people interviewed about both attacks, Morrissey ordered the extradition request be sent to Washington. He said an inconsistency from a person cooperating with authorities wasn’t enough to undermine probable cause in one case and that other statements made by a cooperator in the other killing are consistent in many significant details, even though there was an inconsistency in that person’s account.
The magistrate judge rejected Ahmed’s claim that his extradition isn’t allowed under a U.S.-Iraq treaty provision that bars extraditions for offenses that are political in nature. He concluded al-Qaida wasn’t part of an internal uprising or violent political disturbance under one court standard and instead that the killings were acts of international terrorism.
David Eisenberg, an attorney who represented Ahmed, said extradition carries the potential risk of execution for his client and that he intends on filing a petition with the court seeking a review of Morrissey’s order.
Morrissey didn’t make conclusions about whether Ahmed is innocent or guilty of the charges or whether his extradition is warranted. Instead, he determined there was evidence of probable cause to support each charge and certified the request.
The decision on whether to extradite Ahmed to Iraq is ultimately up to Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s office, though the Justice Department typically plays a driving role in the extradition process. The Justice Department declined to comment on the decision.
Morrissey said the decision over whether humanitarian justifications should be used to refuse extradition is left up to the secretary of state, not the courts.
Prosecutors say Ahmed was seen by witnesses at the killings and later fled Iraq to avoid prosecution.
They questioned Ahmed’s credibility, saying he gave conflicting explanations on how he suffered gunshot wounds while in Iraq and that they could not determine why he spent time in a Syrian prison before moving to the United States.
Ahmed denied involvement in the killings and being a member of a terror group. His lawyers argued Ahmed wouldn’t get a fair trial amid the corruption in the Iraqi justice system and would likely face execution if he were forced back to his native country.
One of Ahmed’s earlier attorneys had questioned why it took more than a decade for Iraqi authorities to formally accuse her client and criticized accounts of the killings from informants who had “everything to gain by delivering the Trump administration a supposed ‘terrorist refugee’ in an election year.”
President Donald Trump’s administration had sharply criticized the Obama-era settlement program, questioning whether enough was done to weed out those with terrorist ties.
Nearly a year ago, a judge in Northern California refused to allow the extradition of Omar Abdulsattar Ameen, who was accused of committing a killing for the Islamic State, to Iraq. The judge said cellphone evidence showed Ameen, who was granted refugee status in the United States in 2014 on the grounds he was a victim of terrorism, was in Turkey at the time of the slaying.
In the first shooting in which Ahmed is charged, authorities say an attacker held a gun to a witness’ head, while another attacker who started to fire on a police officer experienced a malfunction with his gun.
Another attacker then killed police Lt. Issam Ahmed Hussein. The witness later identified Ahmed, who wasn’t wearing a mask, as the group’s leader, according to court records.
Four months later, Iraqi authorities say Ahmed and other men fatally shot Officer Khalid Ibrahim Mohammad as the officer was outside a store.
A person who witnessed the shooting recognized Ahmed, whose mask had fallen off, as one of the assailants, according to court records.
Ahmed’s attorneys had said the violence and turmoil in Iraq prompted their client to flee to Syria, where he lived in a refugee camp for three years before moving to the United States. Authorities said Ahmed spent time in a Syrian prison, though they couldn’t determine what landed him behind bars.
Defense attorneys say Ahmed volunteered in Phoenix’s refugee community and worked as a cultural adviser to the U.S. military, traveling to bases in other states to help military personnel as they prepared to deploy to the Middle East.
Ahmed bought a home on the northwestern edge of metro Phoenix and operated a driving school serving largely Middle Eastern immigrants. He has been detained since his arrest in January 2020.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the first name of Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.