Feds seek 15-year sentence for Iraqi immigrant who sought to assassinate George W. Bush

The Iraqi immigrant accused of trying to orchestrate the murder of former President George W. Bush will be sentenced Monday, and prosecutors are asking a judge to put him in prison for 15 years, saying the U.S. must send a message to shut down future plots.

Shihab Ahmed Shihab Shihab sought to smuggle former Iraqi intelligence officers into the U.S. to carry out the assassination, cased the Dallas neighborhood where the former president keeps a home and strategized on what guns to use, prosecutors said.

He sought revenge for the collapse of his life in Iraq, which he blamed on Mr. Bush for the 2003 invasion that left his country in chaos.

“Shihab’s assistance was designed to aid in the murder of former President Bush, such conduct constituting a federal crime of terrorism,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Knight told the judge in a sentencing memo. “Fueled by emotions and the aftermath of the Iraq War, not to mention his desire to profit financially, this effort was calculated to retaliate against not only the former president, but all Americans.”

He pleaded guilty to one charge of attempting to provide material support to terrorists. Ms. Knight said the 15-year sentence would “send a clear message” to the world that this kind of brazen terrorist assassination plot “will not be tolerated.”

Shihab’s case has gone largely under the radar since his arrest in 2022, but the details are shocking and serve as another warning about the country’s immigration system and the potential for terrorist activity.

The FBI says Shihab got into the U.S. in 2020 through dubious means, obtaining a visitor’s visa from a corrupt Iraqi official at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Once here, he filed an asylum claim but worried it would fail, so he took steps to fabricate a fraudulent marriage to gain permanent legal status here, the FBI said.

He also tried to do a bit of migrant smuggling himself, according to the FBI.

He told a bureau informant he had already smuggled two Hezbollah operatives into the U.S. for $50,000 apiece, and he worked with the informant, a smuggler the bureau has been working with for years, on what Shihab thought was a try at smuggling another Islamic State figure into the U.S.

“The American public overall needs to see this case as probably a clue,” said Todd Bensman, senior national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, who has tracked the case.

“This is kind of a double-barrel shotgun case because it underlines vulnerabilities in the legal entry system,” he said. “How did they not run his fingerprints or check him out? He’s from Iraq, for God’s sake, of an age where he would have been in the military back in his youth. And two, he saw this vulnerability at the southern border as really helpful to killing a former president.”

Shihab’s lawyer, in a cryptic filing, asked to file her sentencing request in a sealed document. She said it contains “information relative to his assistance to the United States” from before the assassination plot.

“Defendant submits that his assistance previously exposed himself and his family to danger,” Rasheeda Khan, the lawyer, wrote, though she did not describe the assistance.

The judge had yet to rule on that request Friday.

Shihab also sent at least three letters to the judge while his case has been pending. The judge ordered them translated from Arabic, but they don’t appear in the case docket.

Ms. Khan declined to comment for this story.

Prosecutors, in their memo, cast doubt on Shihab’s claims of cooperating with the FBI.

They said he had at last two opportunities to tell authorities about the assassination plot. Instead, he lied, denying any knowledge of a plot and concealing his efforts.

“Further, he lied about his time in Dallas and the fact that he visited locations associated with the former president,” Ms. Knight wrote. “Instead, he revealed only a minimized version of his role in helping to facilitate the smuggling of an individual he believed to be an Iraqi foreign national with ties to ISIS.”

The FBI, in earlier filings in the case, said Shihab looked into acquiring U.S. Border Patrol uniforms as part of the assassination plot, figuring he would smuggle the ISIS hit team from Mexico.

Special Agent John Ypsilantis said Shihab told sources cooperating with the FBI that he was working with an organization that included former loyalists of Saddam Hussein, and they felt Mr. Bush “was responsible for killing many Iraqis and breaking apart the entire country of Iraq” — the result of the 2003 invasion Mr. Bush oversaw.

Members of the hit team were prepared to die in the assassination attempt, Agent Ypsilantis said, citing conversations between Shihab and the cooperating sources.

Shihab also wanted to be involved in carrying out the hit, but he said his group’s leadership told him to handle logistics and surveillance but leave the killing to the team.

Mr. Bensman said this case is different from many other ISIS-related cases where the FBI circled in on people who’d been active in radical online forums, but where their commitment to terrorism wasn’t as clear.

Shihab was in communication with a terrorist leader, had a hit squad in mind, was working to buy weapons and traveled to Dallas in February 2022 to collect video of Mr. Bush’s neighborhood and his office at the George W. Bush Institute.

“That case more than any other recent one illustrates that the bad guys are fully aware that our southern border is wide open and vulnerable to their depredations,” said Mr. Bensman, author of “America’s Covert Border War: The Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration.”

“This involved real bad actors they were going to bring in, real killers they were going to bring in over the southern border,” he said. “I believe that the defendant chose to bring in them in this way because he perceived it is now easier to bring them over the border than it was for him when he came in as a tourist at an airport.”

The Biden administration has set records for the number of terrorism suspects detected sneaking across the southern border, and experts say that indicates still more people on the terrorism watch list are likely getting through undetected.

Shihab grew up in Iraq, attended a university in the 1990s and got married in 1998. He has five children. He said things went downhill after the 2003 U.S. invasion, which Mr. Bush ordered to cleanse the country of nuclear weapon materials that Saddam Hussein had apparently already gotten rid of.

Shihab said he was captured by Syrian forces and tortured, lost his home and had his marriage deteriorate.

In the U.S., prosecutors described him as “a hustler” ready to do anything for money. He worked under the table despite being an unauthorized immigrant and got paid tens of thousands of dollars for migrant smuggling. Ms. Knight said he showed “the savviness of an educated survivor.”

FBI agents arrested Shihab in the spring of 2022 in Ohio, where was supporting himself by working at restaurants and markets.

He has been in custody since his arrest.

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