Hezbollah Terrorists Caught in US Planning Attack

New Hezbollah recruits in Lebanon salute during a ceremony
New Hezbollah recruits in Lebanon salute during a ceremony (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

The pace of jihadist activity has been so intense lately that an incredibly important story has been barely reported on:

Two terrorists belonging to Hezbollah, a puppet of the Iranian and Syrian regimes, have been arrested for planning attacks in the U.S., with one scouting potential targets in New York including JFK International Airport.

Both are citizens who entered, exited and re-entered the U.S.

Although the Iranian and Syrian regimes regularly organize terrorist attacks through its Hezbollah proxy, the plotting of attacks on U.S. soil and on Americans overseas is very significant, but not unprecedented.

The two arrested terrorists are Ali Kourani of the Bronx, New York and Samer El-Debek of Dearborn, Michigan. Each is a well-trained militant who belongs to Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad branch that is tasked with perpetrating terrorist attacks, preferably with some level of deniability.

Yet, under questioning, Ali Kourani explicitly told the FBI in 2016 and 2017 that he was a “sleeper” agent of Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad carrying out “black ops” for Hezbollah and “the Iranians.”

His first round of training took place in Lebanon in 2000 when he was only 16-years old. Kourani admitted to the FBI that he was accepted by Hezbollah because his family is connected to a top official in the terrorist group. He said one of his brothers is the “face of Hezbollah” in Yater, Lebanon and boasted that his family’s name is like the “Bin Laden’s of Lebanon.” In other words, his family is famous for being terrorists.

Shockingly, in 2003 (two years after the 9/11 attacks), this member of a famous terrorist family successfully entered the U.S. and became a student. He also went by the names of “Jacob Lewis” and “Daniel.”

In 2008, he then joined Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad branch. Shortly thereafter, he applied for naturalization and became a citizen in April 2009, all the while lying about his connections to terrorism. If his boasts are true, a simple look of his family would have tipped off the U.S. government about who Kourani was.

Kourani predictably lied throughout his process to become a U.S. citizen, including denying any plans to travel overseas when he applied to become a citizen. Only a month after becoming a citizen, he went to Guangzhou, China, on a so-called “business trip” to the location of a medical company that produces chemicals that can be used in bombs. Stolen chemicals from the company were later found in the possession of Iranian terrorists in Thailand planning bombings.

In 2011, Kourani went to Lebanon for a second round of terrorism training in RPG and various firearms. He then came back into the U.S. to use the skills he acquired.

On the orders of his Hezbollah handler, he began identifying and surveilling targets.

According to the criminal complaint, his handler directed him to “surveil and collet information regarding airports, including the layout of terminals, the locations of cameras and personnel, and other security features. In response, Kourani provided detailed information to [his handler] regarding specific security protocols, baggage-screening and collection practices and the locations of surveillance cameras, security personnel, law enforcement officers and magnetometers at JFK and an international airport in another country.”

Some historical context is important here: This is a revival of Iran’s ambitions to target New York’s JFK International Airport. Iran already tried to carry out an attack at the airport once and was preparing to do so again.

The previous plan (in 2007) was to blow up fuel tanks and pipelines going to the airport. The FBI confirms that one of the individuals involved in this plot had links to “militant groups” in Iran and Venezuela and had regularly contact with Iranian authorities.

There were various other Iranian links, including the involvement of an operative who was previously part of an Iran-sponsored bombing in Argentina in 1994.

Kourani also used Google Maps to research LaGuardia Airport in Queens, New York (specifically its terminals) in April 2011. He also looked up the U.S. Armed Forces Career Center in Queens in February 2013.

Kourani conducted surveillance on a governmental building in Manhattan with FBI offices inside; an Army National Guard office in Manhattan; an Army Armory building in Manhattan and a Secret Service office in Brooklyn.

He looked for people tied to the Israeli military. He was also tasked with making contacts who could provide firearms to Hezbollah operatives in the U.S.

In addition, Hezbollah wanted Kourani to do something in Mexico and Canada. His handler talked about possibly having him fly to one of these countries and cross into the U.S. by land using his passport. Hezbollah has ties to Latin American drug cartels, which may have something to do with the talk of a trip to Mexico.

The surveillance of targets in preparation for expected Hezbollah attacks continued until at least September 2015, as per the complaint.

Like Kourani, Samer El-Debek is a naturalized citizen who belonged to Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad branch. He communicated via email with someone who owned a business in Iran.

El-Debek acted as an agent of the terrorist group from 2007 to September 2016, with his salary growing to over $1,000 per month plus medical expenses. He is a specialist in bomb-making and began confessing to the FBI after Hezbollah accused him of being an American spy and detained him for four months until he falsely admitted to being one.

El-Debek was first trained in 2008 and received four rounds of training total. One round included six days of religious teaching, where a sheikh taught about Islam’s rules and “martyrdom ideology.” His explosives training focused on remotely-detonated bombs.

El-Debek was specifically taught how to make IEDs like the one Hezbollah used on a bus of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria in 2012 that killed 6 people and injured 32. He told the FBI that the bomber was his aunt’s nephew.

In 2009, he was sent to Thailand to dispose of bomb ingredients from a Hezbollah safehouse that they believed to have come under surveillance. His cover was that he was traveling to Thailand for paid sex, going so far as to hire a prostitute and to have her enter the safehouse so he could try to discover any surveillance taking place.

In 2011, El-Debek flew to Colombia and entered Panama on a Hezbollah mission to identify gaps in security at the Panama Canal and the Israeli embassy. He returned to Panama in 2012 to identify weaknesses in the Panama Canal’s construction and security gaps and find out how close someone could get to a ship passing through.

He was told to conduct surveillance of the U.S. embassy but did not, fearing it would compromise his mission.

Hezbollah detained El-Debek in December 2015 until April 2016, accusing him of being a U.S. spy and demanding a confession. He eventually did so. Based on the complaint, it appears the detention caused him to open up to the FBI during voluntary questioning (assuming his story is true).

This is only a tiny portion of what Iran and Hezbollah is doing to try to attack targets in the U.S. at home and abroad. This is the experience of only two Hezbollah terrorists we caught.

If this is the scale of what we do know, then what horrors are being planned that we don’t know about?

Ryan Mauro
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org's Shillman Fellow and national security analyst and an adjunct professor of counter-terrorism. He is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio.