The FBI claims to have foiled an assassination attempt against former President George W. Bush, alleging the infamous Islamic State terrorist group hatched a globe-spanning plot to kill the ex-commander in chief.
Since Forbes first reported the story on Tuesday, the suspect has been identified as 52-year old Iraqi national Shihab Ahmed Shihab. He is said to have arrived in the United States in 2020 on a visitor visa pending an asylum application.
Investigators claim to have caught the would-be assassination organizer in the act as a result of his interactions, beginning last year, with two undercover informants. The FBI also conducted electronic surveillance on his communications via the messaging application WhatsApp.
Pete Williams, NBC News Justice Correspondent, said Bush faced “zero” threat because the FBI was “constantly all over this man.” CNN reported the court documents show Bush was never in danger.
The Forbes report portrays this operation as an example of how the FBI, “despite its claims of being prevented from investigating major crimes because of Meta and other tech providers’ use of encryption, has been able to work around WhatsApp security by using old-school policing with sourcing of informants and tracking the metadata they can get from the messaging company.”
The source for the Forbes report is an FBI search warrant filed on March 23 that Meet the Press says was “accidentally” unsealed this week. According to the document, Shihab claimed to work for a group named “Al-Raed,” which he said was based in Qatar and led by a former Iraqi pilot for Saddam Hussein until his recent death. Shihab allegedly told one informant that the group whose name means “Thunder” is not connected to ISIS, but he hoped ISIS would support this plot.
Shihab is accused of attempting to recruit a team of four Iraqi nationals located in Iraq, Denmark, Egypt and Turkey. The group was to be smuggled via Brazil across the Mexican border to assist him in the plot to kill the former president.
The FBI claims, in November 2021, Shihab revealed the plan to one of the informants, asking him if he knew how to “obtain replica or fraudulent police and/or FBI identifications and badges” for use in the assassination scheme.
A New York Times report citing the same warrant says one of the FBI informants told the suspect he could put him in contact with organizations to facilitate his operation, offering to help smuggle the undocumented men into the country with false identification and immigration documents.
In a conversation with one federal informant, Shihab said he believed the men he was attempting to recruit were ISIS members, describing them as “former Baath Party members in Iraq who did not agree with the current Iraqi government and were political exiles.” He told another FBI source that one of the men was “the secretary of an ISIS financial minister,” and later noted that he planned to charge each $15,000 to be brought into the United States.
Court documents say Shihab also claimed to have ISIS connection as well as a history of helping terrorist groups kill occupying American soldiers during the Iraq war’s early years.
Though Shihab discussed helping to smuggle four individuals from overseas, he indicated that as many as seven men would be involved in the assassination plot, according to communications with informants.
In addition to helping the men enter the country, Shihab was also allegedly asked “to locate and conduct surveillance on former president Bush’s residences and/or offices and obtain firearms and vehicles to use in the assassination.”
CNN reports that in February, “during in-person meetings in Dallas that the documents say were recorded, Shihab and the informant drove to the neighborhood of Bush’s residence in Dallas, as Shihab allegedly took videos of the neighborhood’s access gate and the surrounding area, according to the documents…Shihab and the informant also traveled to the George W. Bush Institute, where they walked around on foot. Shihab took video recordings of the institute’s library and office area, the court documents said.”
The following month, in Columbus, the informant met again with Shihab to inspect firearms and a Border Patrol uniform. Court documents say the FBI provided the informant with these items.
The Forbes article indicates the FBI exploited pressure points to convince Shihab to continue pursuing the scheme, saying agents “used two different confidential sources to investigate the plot, one who claimed to offer assistance obtaining false immigration and identification documents, the second a purported customer of the alleged people smuggler, who was willing to pay thousands of dollars to bring his family into the country.”
The informants secretly recorded their in-person conversations with Shihab, as well as discussions on the WhatsApp chat program, and began forwarding information to the FBI last year. Beyond their assistance with Shihab’s plans to bring the undocumented immigrants into the U.S., the informants provided cell phones and cell phone data cards to develop those plans. Two months ago, the FBI obtained the warrant for Shihab’s phone records. One informant turned a cell phone over to the FBI that Shihab requested be destroyed.
Shihab was arrested later on Tuesday by FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force agents and appeared before an Ohio federal court in the afternoon. A DOJ statement says he faces 10 years in prison for attempting to illegally bring somebody into the United States, and possibly another 20 year sentence for aiding and abetting the attempted murder of a former U.S. official.
Undercover federal agents and confidential informants have played major roles in a number of high-profile cases, including the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. For the DOJ, that case ended in disaster. The actions of FBI agents and a high number of informants helped defense lawyers argue successfully that their clients were pressured to take part in a plot they otherwise would not have pursued. This led to two acquittals, two mistrials, and no convictions. The Times described this Bush assassination case as an opportunity to “reset” the DOJ’s damaged reputation.
Shihab allegedly told the informant “they wished to kill former President Bush because they felt that he was responsible for killing many Iraqis and breaking apart the entire country of Iraq.”
Bush’s illegal and unconstitutional war in Iraq, launched in 2003, was estimated after only five years to have killed more than one million people. Brown University’s Costs of War project has collected data showing, since Bush’s invasion, over nine million Iraqis have been either displaced internally or forced to flee the country as refugees.