Allegations that an American citizen held in Iraq since 2004 worked with terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi surfaced after his family went to a U.S. court in a bid to prevent him from being transferred to Iraqi custody, NBC News learned.
The American, Shawqi Omar, allegedly met with al-Zarqawi on numerous occasions and is related to the al-Qaida leader through marriage, according to new federal court documents filed in connection with the case. In addition to his suspected involvement with al-Zarqawi’s plots, Omar was one of 12 people charged on Oct. 17, 2004, with plotting a chemical attack in Jordan.
Omar, 44, has been in the custody of American authorities in Iraq as an “enemy combatant” since Oct. 29, 2005, when he was arrested in a raid on his Baghdad apartment.
His family denies he has any terrorist connections. “Based on my knowledge of him, I can say without being too biased, he is not a terrorist. This is all a big mistake, and it's not fair to him or us,” his brother, Bassam, told NBC’s Investigative Unit.
The court filings came in response to a plea from Omar’s American-born wife, Sandra, a South Dakota native who now lives in the Middle East. She persuaded a federal judge late last week to issue an order blocking Omar’s transfer to Iraqi authorities for trial until his legal status can be clarified.
Incarcerated at Abu Ghraib
According to accounts from American authorities and a lawyer for the family, Omar has been held in at least two prisons in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib, awaiting a trial in an Iraqi court. His family told a federal judge that he went to Iraq in 2002 to work on post-war reconstruction.
Omar was born in Kuwait to Jordanian parents. His wife said he came to the United States in 1979 as a student and become a U.S. citizen in 1986 but also retained his Jordanian citizenship. He lived in at least five states — Kansas, Minnesota, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah and the Washington, DC, area — and served briefly in the Minnesota National Guard.
After months of trying to get Omar legal representation, his wife and a son enlisted help from an American lawyer, who filed a motion last December arguing that as an American citizen, he had the right to have a U.S. court determine whether he was properly held in Iraq.
Government attorneys responded with a filing in U.S. District Court in Washington saying that Omar had a second occupation helping the insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq. A declaration by Army Maj. Gen. John Gardner, deputy commanding general for detainee operations, states that Omar was arrested “in a raid targeting associates” of al-Zarqawi.
Explosives reportedly found in home
The general’s declaration said Omar had “several weapons and Improvised Explosive Device-making materials in his home,” and that there is “testimonial evidence of Mr. Omar's numerous private meetings with al-Zarqawi.”
The declaration adds that Omar “was captured harboring an Iraqi insurgent and four Jordanian foreign fighters" and that they all conducted surveillance of potential kidnap victims within Baghdad. Omar allegedly used his English skills “to visit Baghdad hotels in order to entice foreigners to return to Omar's home for the purpose of their kidnap and ransom.”
The Jordan Times reported that the 2004 plot there, which it said was part of a larger conspiracy to attack the Jordanian Prime Ministry and the U.S. Embassy in Amman, involved using trucks carrying 20 tons of chemicals. Experts told the newspaper that the chemicals could have killed 80,000 people and injured 160,000 others.
Lisa Myers and Jim Popkin of the NBC News Investigative Unit and NBC Justice Correspondent Pete Williams contributed to this report.