Arrest of Canadian 'cuts the wound open'
Stewart Bell, National Post
31 January 2011http://www.nationalpost.com/news/canada/Arrest+Canadian+cuts+wound+open/4194866/story.html
The death of Staff Sgt. Gary Lee Woods was a big deal in Lebanon Junction, Kentucky. On the day of his funeral, a giant American flag was suspended over the town between the raised ladders of two fire trucks.
Uniformed soldiers carried his flag-draped coffin into the packed gym at Bullitt Central High School, and after the service, the Patriot Guard Riders escorted his hearse through rainy spring streets to Cedar Grove Cemetery.
The family accepted Sgt. Woods' death as his sacrifice for America. "You did everything you could possibly do to protect our country," his grandmother Nancy Ratliff wrote on a Facebook tribute page.
"God decided you had done enough."
But unbeknownst to the family, while they were grieving, U.S., Canadian and Tunisian officials were on the trail of an international network linked to the April 10, 2009 suicide bombing that had killed Sgt. Woods in northern Iraq.
Christie Woods said she knew nothing about the police investigation until two weeks ago, when she got a text message telling her that a man had been arrested in connection with her husband's death, and that he was a Canadian.
Faruq Khalil Muhammad Isa, 38, an alleged member of the group responsible for the bombing, is to appear in an Edmonton courtroom on Wednesday for a bail hearing. He has been charged with conspiracy to kill Americans abroad and providing material support to a terrorist conspiracy.
In an exclusive interview, Mrs. Woods told the National Post that news of the arrest was "hard to hear" and had made her relive the day she found out her 24-year-old husband had been killed in the line of duty.
"I'm not angry at all. With my faith and everything I don't believe in holding on to grudges. But it does hurt. It cuts the wound open more to realize that there's somebody that close that would do that to somebody," she said.
Mrs. Woods met her future husband at Bullitt Central high, where he was a funnyman and musician. He played piano, guitar, trombone and drums. "Anything he could pick up he could play," she said.
Troubled by the 9/11 attacks, he joined the army right out of high school. He did his basic training at Fort Knox, and on July 26, 2003, the weekend before he shipped out to Iraq, he and Christie were married.
"He was a great guy. He would do anything for anybody, give the shirt off his back for anyone," she said. "My mom and dad loved him like their own son and I'd like to say his parents love me like I was theirs."
He completed two tours of Iraq and returned for a third in September 2008. After that he and Christie were scheduled to move to Fort Knox. "He was looking forward to that, being closer to family," reads his obituary.
The same month that Sgt. Woods arrived in Iraq for his final tour, Mr. Muhammad Isa, also known as Sayfildin Tahir Sharif, allegedly began working with what the FBI calls a "foreign-fighter facilitation network" that was sending Tunisians to Iraq via Libya to carry out suicide attacks.
The first group of four would-be martyrs arrived in Ras el-Jadir, Libya on Oct. 17, 2008. Mr. Muhammad Isa was allegedly coaching a fifth Tunisian who also wanted to conduct a suicide mission.
"Do not forget to keep reading Koran and repeat the famous prayers on the way until you meet with God.... what I know is that the things we are about to do are duty on us," Mr. Muhammad Isa told him, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court.
The Tunisian never made it to Iraq. He was arrested while trying to cross the border to Libya. But others made it and on March 31, 2009, two of them carried out a suicide bombing at a police complex in Mosul. Seven Iraqis were killed and 17 injured.
Ten days later, the Tunisians struck again. A U.S. Army convoy was leaving Forward Operating Base Marez when Iraqi guards began exchanging gunfire with a man in a dump truck. The truck made a rush for the American base and exploded 45 metres from the entrance.
The bomb went off next to Sgt. Woods' MRAP, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle. Four other American soldiers were also killed. Sgt. Woods' mother caught the first flight out so she would be there when his body returned home to U.S. soil. "I was devastated, and so was the family," Mrs. Woods said.
Eight days after the bombing, a member of the group behind the blast was arrested in Al Basrah. FBI agents debriefed him and two more arrests were soon made near Mosul. What the suspects told the FBI has not been revealed in the court documents.
But shortly after the arrests, the FBI contacted the RCMP, which launched Project Semolina. The target of the investigation was Mr. Muhammad Isa, an Iraqi-Canadian who lived in Edmonton with a Canadian named Cara Rain and her four children.
A convert to Islam, Ms. Rain told the Edmonton Journal she met Mr. Muhammad Isa in August 2008. She insisted he was innocent and said he phoned Iraq almost daily and spoke in Arabic.
The RCMP was listening. According to the FBI, which
released excerpts of his conversations, Mr. Muhammad Isa was in contact with members of the group in Iraq. In the exchanges, he appeared to know details about the bombing that killed Sgt. Woods.
In other conversations, he talked about buying a telescopic rifle with a silencer, the FBI alleged, and said he supported the group "one million per cent" and that "even if I can't work over there, I can get some business going here to benefit us...."
He volunteered to travel to Iraq to fight Americans and conduct a suicide mission, and told his mother his greatest wish was to die a martyr and be greeted in paradise by 70 virgins, the FBI alleged. Last May, he allegedly told his sister in Iraq, "Go learn about weapons and go attack the police and Americans. Let it be that you die."
The U.S. Department of Justice wants Canada to extradite Mr. Muhammad Isa to New York to stand trial. Mrs. Woods said she wants justice to be done and would try to attend the proceedings. She also knows what she would tell the suspect if she got the chance.
"Honestly, I would say 'I pray for your soul,'" she said. "I mean that I would pray that God would give him mercy. I would ask him questions, I would want to know what his reasoning was."
She said she is coping "day to day" with the loss. "He was my best friend, we were together off and on since my freshman year of high school. He was my best friend, fully, even when we weren't together," she said.
"Everything I am today is because of Lee. He made me a stronger person than I could ever imagine. He was the light in the room, the smile on my face, my everything. We all feel his loss every day of our lives.
"The pain never goes away."