Iraqi national sentenced to seven years for smuggling guns through Port of Savannah

An Iraqi national has been sentenced to federal prison after being convicted of trying to smuggle guns through the Port of Savannah.

Nihad Al Jaberi, 43, of Clarkston, Georgia, was sentenced to more than seven years in prison after a jury in February convicted him on charges of smuggling and submitting false or misleading export information, among other charges, according to David H. Estes, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia.

The U.S. Department of Justice claims that in August 2020, Al Jaberi tried to hide six .308-caliber long-range rifles and three handguns in a shipment labeled as “71 Pieces of Spare Auto Parts with No License Required.” The DOJ added that Al Jaberi obtained the firearms through straw purchases — meaning someone else bought them on his behalf — at various Atlanta-area sporting goods stores before disassembling the guns and hiding them among used automotive parts in a container that authorities intercepted at the Port of Savannah.

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“This interception will hold Al Jaberi accountable while preventing deadly weapons from heading to a dangerous and unstable country,” said Estes in a DOJ press release.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Christopher Ray wrote in one court case file, an order of detention pending trial, that the government presented evidence that Al Jaberi “took active measures” to ensure the nine guns he was sending to Iraq “would not be associated with his name.” After he was contacted by law enforcement, the same judge wrote, Al Jaberi lied about the transactions and tried to get the straw purchasers to create false documents.

The nine guns Al Jaberi was accused of trying to send from the Port of Savannah to Iraq in late July 2020 and early August 2020.
The nine guns Al Jaberi was accused of trying to send from the Port of Savannah to Iraq in late July 2020 and early August 2020.

Before his sentencing, Al Jaberi pled not guilty to all charges.

An attorney for Al Jaberi wrote in a sentencing memorandum that the “trial of this case did not even begin to paint an accurate picture of him and his life. He is not a dangerous terrorist or a smuggler intending to harm anyone.”

"Mr. Al Jaberi has lived life contrary to the stereotypical smuggler, a life which shows he had too much to give up to intentionally seek to hurt anyone," the attorney wrote.

In a sentencing transcript, the lead DOJ attorney prosecuting the case Jennifer Solari disagreed, saying Al Jaberi wanted his family to believe the United States "framed" and "damned" him in an "unfair trial and that the kangaroo courts they left behind in Iraq are here in the United States just waiting to trap and condemn an innocent man."

"That is, Your Honor, in the defendant's circumstances, one of the most dishonest, disgraceful and dishonorable things I've seen," said Solari.

Who is Al Jaberi?

Sometime before 2016 and prior to his move to the U.S., Al Jaberi and his family started receiving death threats from local Iraqi militias, according to letters sent to the judge by the family members.

To save him and his family from the militias, his attorney claimed in the sentencing memorandum, Al Jaberi went to the U.S. Embassy in Iraq.

On August 18, 2016, according to the sentencing memorandum, Al Jaberi “obtained legal permanent resident status” to live in the U.S.

In the sentencing transcript, Al Jaberi said he migrated from Iraq to the United States through the "International Organization of Migration," through a "special organization for the people [who] help [the] United States Government," Al Jaberi claimed.

The transitional time proved difficult for him and his family, according to a letter written to the judge by Rasha Al-Rubaye, Al Jaberi's wife of 15 years.

“[M]oving across the ocean to a foreign land, with a foreign language and culture took a big toll on our family,” Al-Rubaye wrote. “We wanted a peaceful and dignified life. We wanted to give our children a safe home and we wanted them to grow up with luxuries we unfortunately never had back home.”

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What Al Jaberi or his family did not mention was that Al Jaberi made a trip to Iraq in early December 2017, according to the sentencing transcript. He flew out of Atlanta to Qatar on December 3rd, 2017, and returned from Qatar to Atlanta on December 30th, 2017, testified Customs Border Protection agent John Wilcher, who worked the case. During the 27-days overseas, he visited Iraq, his "ultimate destination," said Wilcher.

In 2018, about two years after moving to the United States, Al Jaberi started a truck driving and freight shipping company, according to public records.

Per his Linkedin profile, Al Jaberi worked as a truck driver for Tigris Hawk International LLC, a freight shipping and trucking company that, according to Buzzfile, he also owns. The same website claims the Clarkston-based company earned $355,215 in annual revenue and employed approximately four people.

According to Federalpay.org, Tigris Hawk International received a Coronavirus-related PPP loan for $4,935 from the Small Business Administration in June 2020.

Al Jaberi was registered as an agent for another company located at the same address as Tigris Hawk International, according to OpenCorporates.com. The company, HoTlanta Contractors LLC, was incorporated in July 2018 and terminated in mid-May 2019.

Possible U.S. military ties and flight risk

According to the charges in the indictment, from July 24 through Aug. 4, 2020, Al Jaberi attempted to ship nine guns to Iraq while failing to notify a common carrier and submitted false or misleading export information. But to whom Al Jaberi was sending the guns remains unclear, as there is no mention in the publicly available court case filings.

What was mentioned, however, were Al Jaberi’s “significant” family ties to Iraq and his possible contracting work with the U.S. military.

Magistrate Judge Ray noted Al Jaberi posed a flight risk because of his “significant family ties to Iraq." Asked which family members were "significant," Solari wrote in an email, his "mother and multiple siblings."

But what exactly makes them “significant,” however, is unclear, but letters to the judge from family members shed some light.

One of Al Jaberi's brothers, Ammar Al-Jabri, wrote a letter asking for leniency. In that letter, Ammar Al-Jabri said that another brother, Mustafa Al-Jabri, had been killed in Iraq “as a result of Nihad Al Jabri’s work with U.S. companies and forces present in Iraq."

“Nihad is a good and generous person who helps people and loves life,” Ammar Al Jabri wrote. “And he loves the United States and was exposed to danger because of that.”

Mustafa Al-Jabri's killing has been confirmed by Iraqi news sources that described Mustafa as a young activist who had been involved in anti-corruption and anti-governmental demonstrations.

In another letter to the judge, a stepsister, Lubna Al-Badr, who lives in Baghdad, wrote, Nihad "has taken many risks to serve the United States and its friends."

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Although Solari wrote in an email that Al Jaberi was never enlisted in the U.S. military, she could not say conclusively whether Al Jaberi worked with any forces that worked with or for the U.S. military. Shortly after his arrest, Solari said, Al Jaberi made the claim that he worked in some capacity with the U.S. military forces in Iraq, but the DOJ, Solari said, "never received any evidence to substantiate the claim."

In a footnote in the sentencing memorandum, Al Jaberi's defense team argued at trial that the DOJ "did not link Mr. Al Jaberi to anyone or any organization in Iraq…or any evidence of communication about the firearms with anyone in Iraq."

Officials working the case and quoted in the DOJ press release, however, alluded to where the guns may have ended up had they not been intercepted at the Port of Savannah.

“In the wrong hands, these export-controlled, high-powered rifles could enable malign actors to harm our warfighters, allies, and innocent civilians overseas,” said Special Agent in Charge Ariel Joshua Leinwand.

In January, February and March 2019, Al Jaberi made three shipments from Atlanta to Iraq, according to testimony in the sentencing transcript from CBP agent John Wilcher. In the packages were grills, which contained disassembled firearms. The grills and the disassembled firearms were sent to a person named Ali Fadel, said Wilcher.

U.S. District Court Judge R. Stan Baker ordered that Al Jaberi be referred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation after completion of his sentence. According to Consumer Law Group, a national immigration law firm, naturalized citizens can be deported for crimes. If not deported, Al Jaberi must serve three years of supervised release following his prison term, the judge ruled. In late September, Al Jaberi was sentenced to 94 months with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Drew Favakeh is the public safety reporter for Savannah Morning News. You can reach him at AFavakeh@savannahnow.com.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Iraqi national sentenced for smuggling guns through Port of Savannah