Analysis: 2 US cases provide unique window into Iran’s global terror network

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, June 23, 2017:

On June 8, the Department of Justice (DOJ) made an announcement that deserves more attention. Two alleged Hizballah operatives had been arrested inside the United States after carrying out various missions on behalf of the Iranian-sponsored terrorist organization. The plots took the men around the globe, from Thailand to Panama and even into the heart of New York City.

Both men are naturalized U.S. citizens. And they are both accused of performing surveillance on prospective targets for Hizballah’s highly secretive external operations wing, known as the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO).

Ali Kourani, a 32-year-old who was living in the Bronx, New York (pictured on the right*), allegedly gathered “information regarding operations and security at airports in the U.S. and elsewhere,” while also “surveilling U.S. military and law enforcement facilities in Manhattan and Brooklyn.” Hizballah asked Kourani to identify “individuals affiliated with the Israeli Defense Force” inside the U.S. and locate “weapons suppliers in the U.S. who could provide firearms to support IJO operations” as well. Kourani allegedly conducted all of these missions on behalf of his IJO “handler,” who was safely ensconced back home in Lebanon.

Samer el Debek, a 37-year-old resident of Dearborn, Michigan, is charged with “casing security procedures at the Panama Canal and the Israeli Embassy” in Panama, identifying “areas of weakness and construction at the Panama Canal,” and determining for Hizballah “how close someone could get to a ship passing through the Canal.” His “IJO handlers” also “asked him for photographs of the U.S. Embassy” in Panama, as well as “details” concerning its “security procedures.” (El Debek told authorities he did not provide Hizballah with the information requested on the American embassy.)

The charges brought against Kourani and El Debek have not been proven in a court of law. They remain allegations that have yet to be weighed by the criminal justice system. Still, the legal filings in both cases provide a unique window into how the FBI and the U.S. government are tracking Hizballah’s international terror network, including inside America.

Hizballah’s Islamic Jihad Organization first gained infamy in the 1980s, when it orchestrated various attacks on Americans and Europeans in Lebanon and elsewhere. In some ways, the IJO could be credited with launching the modern jihadist war against the U.S., pioneering the use of near-simultaneous suicide bombings. Such tactics would later be adopted by Sunni jihadists, including al Qaeda, with devastating effects.

The IJO has avoided public scrutiny at times. The public’s attention has been mainly focused on the Islamic State of late. This is understandable as the so-called caliphate inspires, directs and guides terrorist operations around the globe.

But the U.S. government’s recent filings, including the sworn affidavits of two FBI agents responsible for tracking Hizballah, make it clear that the IJO continues to manage a sophisticated, clandestine web of operatives who are trained to carry out Iran’s bidding.

The IJO uses multiple aliases, including “External Security Organization” and “910.” The government describes it as a “component of Hizballah responsible for the planning and coordination of intelligence, counterintelligence, and terrorist activities on behalf of” the terror group “outside of Lebanon.” The IJO’s “operatives” are usually “assigned a Lebanon-based ‘handler,’ sometimes referred to as a mentor,” and this person is “responsible for providing taskings, debriefing operatives, and arranging training.”

The IJO often compartmentalizes its operations, conducting them “in stages” and “sending waves of one or more operatives with separate taskings such as surveillance, obtaining and storing necessary components and equipment, and attack execution.” Indeed, the government explains that the IJO’s handlers keep the procurement of ammonium nitrate-based products used for bomb-making separate from other terror-related tasks so as to avoid generating additional scrutiny.

Neither Kourani, nor El Debek is accused of conspiring to commit an imminent attack. But US officials think their work was part of longer-term planning.

“Pre-operational surveillance is one of the hallmarks of [Hizballah] in planning for future attacks,” Commissioner James P. O’Neill of the New York Police Department (NYPD) explained in a statement.

The surveillance performed in New York City was done “in support of anticipated IJO terrorist attacks,” according to the complaint against Kourani.

Reading through the extensive legal paperwork, totaling dozens of pages, one is left to wonder who else Hizballah may have stationed here inside the U.S. as part of its patient plotting.

The sections that follow below are based on the U.S. government’s complaints and affidavits. In many cases, these same filings say the details cited were originally provided, in whole or in part, by Kourani and El Debek themselves during interviews with the FBI.

Kourani allegedly admitted he was an IJO “sleeper” operative

Ali Kourani (also known as “Jacob Lewis” and “Daniel”) was born near Bint Jbeil, Lebanon in 1984 and relocated to the U.S. as a young man in 2003. He went on to receive “a Bachelor of Science in biomedical engineering in 2009” and a MBA in 2013.

Kourani sat for “multiple voluntary interviews” with the FBI in 2016 and 2017, and much of the evidence cited in the complaint against him is sourced to his own admissions during these sessions. At one point, he apparently said he hoped to exchange information for “financial support and immigration benefits for certain” relatives, but the FBI says it didn’t agree to this quid pro quo proposal.

Kourani allegedly compared his family to the “Bin Ladens of Lebanon,” describing one brother as the “face of Hizballah” in one area of Lebanon. He was first trained at a 45-day Hizballah “boot camp” in the year 2000. He was just 16 years old at the time, but claimed that his “family’s connections to a high-ranking Hizballah official named Haider Kourani” allowed him to attend the camp. Kourani was allegedly “taught to fire AK-47 assault rifles and rocket launchers, as well as basic military tactics.”

His “family’s home was destroyed by an Israeli bombing” during the 2006 Lebanon War. Approximately two years later, according to Kourani, he was “recruited by” Hizballah’s Sheikh Hussein Kourani to serve in the IJO.

Kourani described the IJO as being responsible for “black ops” carried out by Hizballah and “the Iranians.” Kourani also explained that the IJO is “operated” by Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who reports “directly to Ali Khamenei,” the Iranian Supreme Leader.

Kourani told the FBI that he was “recruited to join the IJO in light of his education and residence in the United States.” But there was another sinister motive for Hizballah’s interest in him. The IJO was developing a network of “sleepers” who “maintained ostensibly normal lies but could be activated and tasked with conducting IJO operations,” Kourani purportedly said.

Indeed, Kourani “identified himself” as one of these IJO “sleeper” operatives, “working undercover in the United States” and covertly “conducting IJO intelligence-gathering and surveillance missions” given to him by his handlers in Lebanon.

Kourani identified one IJO handler as “Fadi” (also known as “Hajj”) and explained the elaborate security protocols Hizballah took. In addition to be questioned about his own background, Kourani was trained on “conducting interrogations, resisting interrogations, and surveillance techniques.”

Fadi “typically wore a mask during their meetings,” explaining that the IJO’s “golden rule” is “the less you know the better it is.” Fadi “acted as” Kourani’s handler until about Sept. 2015, when Kourani claims he “was deactivated by the IJO.”

Fadi told Kourani to obtain a U.S. citizenship, a passport and related documents, thereby making it easier for him to travel around the world on behalf of Hizballah. The IJO’s man also instructed Kourani on how they could communicate securely, using code words and other basic tradecraft.

IJO surveillance in New York City, including at John F. Kennedy International Airport

The most striking allegations against Kourani involve his surveillance of potential targets in New York City on behalf of Hizballah.

Fadi “directed” Kourani to “surveil and collect information regarding military and intelligence targets in the New York City area,” the FBI found. Kourani then “conducted physical surveillance” on three locations in Manhattan and another in Brooklyn. The buildings he surveilled include: “a U.S. government facility, which includes FBI offices”; a “U.S. Army National Guard facility”; a “U.S. Secret Service facility”; and a “U.S. Army Armory facility.” Kourani transferred his video surveillance on “at least one” of these targets to “Fadi and other IJO personnel in Lebanon.”

According to the complaint, Fadi had Kourani surveil airports in the New York area. “In response,” Kourani “provided detailed information to Fadi 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.”

Fadi tasked Kourani with other missions as well. He told Kourani to “obtain surveillance equipment in the United States” – including “drones, night-vision goggles, and high-powered cameras” – “so that the underlying technology could be studied and replicated by the IJO.” He also had Kourani “cultivate contacts” who “could provide firearms for use in potential future IJO operations in the United States” (Fadi allegedly deemed these contacts unsuitable for arms purchases), while also collecting “intelligence regarding individuals…affiliated with the” Israeli Defense Forces.

Read more

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

America and Europe: a Case of Impaired Judgment?

by Anat Berko

EU Blacklists Hezbollah: Not Really

by Soeren Kern:

EU governments agreed only to blacklist the “military” wing of Hezbollah, thus maintaining the politically expedient fiction that a clear distinction can be drawn between Hezbollah terrorists and those members of the group’s “political” wing. European officials are afraid of Hezbollah reprisals against European interests at home and abroad. They are especially worried that if they antagonize Hezbollah, the group may activate sleeper cells and carry out attacks in European cities.

After years of equivocating, a reluctant European Union agreed on July 22 to place part of Hezbollah on itsterrorism blacklist, ostensibly to cut off the Shiite militant group’s sources of funding inside Europe.

But the unanimous decision by the 28-member bloc is likely to have only a limited impact on the Lebanon-based, Iranian-financed Hezbollah.

In a classic European fudge, EU governments agreed only to blacklist the “military” wing of Hezbollah, thus maintaining the politically expedient fiction that a clear distinction can be drawn between Hezbollah terrorists and those members of the group’s “political” wing.

 

A Hezbollah poster.

Blacklisting all of Hezbollah would have deprived the “Party of Allah” of potentially significant sources of fundraising by enabling the freezing of all of its bank accounts and assets in Europe. But by prevaricating on the true nature of Hezbollah, the EU has effectively limited the ability of law enforcement agencies to crack down on the group’s shadowy fundraising activities in Europe.

Instead, the onus will be on European counter-terrorism police to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Hezbollah monies — which are often raised by entities masquerading as charities — are being expressly destined for terrorist activities rather than for “political” purposes.

Because of this legal uncertainty, it remains unclear if the EU will actually target any of Hezbollah’s assets or individuals in Europe.

The decision to list only a part of Hezbollah as a terrorist group comes more than five months after the Bulgarian government said it was clear that Hezbollah was behind a 2012 bus bombing in the Bulgarian city of Burgas that killed five Israelis and their driver.

In addition, a court in Cyprus recently sentenced Hezbollah operative Hossam Taleb Yaakoub to four years in prison for plotting to kill Israelis in the EU member state.

But the EU’s decision to blacklist Hezbollah was not primarily in response to the group’s terrorist activities in Europe. Instead, the EU has repeatedly cited its “concerns” over Hezbollah’s growing involvement in the war in Syria.

European officials have long rationalized their lack of resolve against Hezbollah by claiming that the organization has both a military wing and a political wing, and that cracking down on the former would cripple the latter. This, they say, would lead to the destabilization of Lebanon and thus the broader Middle East.

Many analysts, however, say this rationalization is a smoke screen Europeans are hiding behind to conceal the real reason why they are reluctant to confront Hezbollah, namely, fear of reprisals.

Read more at Gatestone Institute

 

Iranian, Hezbollah Terror Cells Re-Activated

A member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps stands next to a picture of the Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979. (Photo: Reuters)

A member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps stands next to a picture of the Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979. (Photo: Reuters)

By Clare Lopez:

Days before Israel reportedly struck inside Syria to destroy a shipment of dangerous Fateh-110 missiles with long range, precision-targeting capabilities, Hezbollah’s Supreme Guide Hassan Nasrallah declared that Syria had “real friends” who were ready and able to defend the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, under attack since early 2011 by a coalition of Sunni rebels.

In an April 30 address on the Hezbollah satellite TV network, Al-Manar, Nasrallah hinted at a possible Hezbollah role on the ground inside Syria and, as he has done before, directly threatened both “America and the Zionist regime [Israel].”

This is not the first time that Nasrallah and his Iranian terror proxy, Hezbollah, have lashed out against the United States and Israel on orders from the “Supreme Leader” of the Iranian regime. What some have termed the “Shadow War” between Jerusalem and Tehran burst into the open in early 2012, with a series of plots involving Hezbollah and Iranian operatives across the globe.

From AfricaCentral Asia, and the Far East to Eastern Europe, the Shi’ite terror network has been identified by authorities in assassination, bombing, and Israeli embassy and personnel attack attempts. Many, thankfully, were thwarted, but in July 2012, five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver were killed in Burgas, Bulgaria by a Hezbollah suicide bomber.

Read more at The Clarion Project

Elaborate surveillance operation raises concerns about broader Hezbollah attacks

AFP/AFP/GETTY IMAGES -  A truck carries the bus damaged by the suicide bomb blast which targeted a group of Israeli tourists in Bourgas, Bulgaria, on July 19, 2012.

AFP/AFP/GETTY IMAGES – A truck carries the bus damaged by the suicide bomb blast which targeted a group of Israeli tourists in Bourgas, Bulgaria, on July 19, 2012.

By :

The Israeli tourists on Arkia Airlines Flight 161 from Tel Aviv could not have known it, but their arrival in Cyprus July 6 was watched closely. A pair of trained eyes counted each passenger as the group exited the plane and boarded a shuttle, headed for resorts that had also been carefully studied and mapped.

The bearded foreigner who silently tracked the Israelis had done his work well. He knew where the visitors would sleep, shop and eat. He knew how many security guards patrolled their hotel parking lots and how long it would take police to arrive from the station down the street.

But the watcher was being watched. When Cypriot police picked him up, the Hezbollah operative quickly acknowledged what he was doing, although he claimed not to know why.

“I was just collecting information about the Jews,” he told police, according to a sworn deposition. “This is what my organization is doing, everywhere in the world.”

The arrest of Hossam Yaakoub, a Lebanese-born Swedish citizen, on July 7 was all but forgotten 11 days later when a bus containing another group of vacationing Israelis was blown up in the Bulgarianresort city of Burgas . The attack, which killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian bus driver, was quickly blamed on Hezbollah.

Now, seven months after that attack, new details emerging in Yaakoub’s case are providing chilling insights into what investigators describe as a far broader effort by the Lebanon-based militant group to lay the groundwork for killing Israeli citizens and perhaps others in multiple countries.

Some details have come from Yaakoub himself, who made his first public appearance last week during his trial in Cyprus. But a much fuller account comes from legal documents summarizing the Swedish man’s statements to police during weeks of questioning last summer and obtained by The Washington Post.

The evidence echoes discoveries by investigators in Bulgaria and prosecutors in Thailand, India, Azerbaijan, Kenya and other countries hit by a wave of attempted assassinations and bombings linked to Hezbollah or its chief sponsor, Iran. U.S. officials characterize the plots as part of a shadow war directed by Iran in part to retaliate for Western efforts to derail Iran’s nuclear program. Evidence uncovered by investigators portrays a professional, well-funded effort by Hezbollah to recruit, train and position European-based operatives for what U.S. analysts describe as preparations for future terrorist operations.

‘Calculated tradecraft’

While most of the attacks were thwarted or failed, the accumulated intelligence shows that Hezbollah is learning from its mistakes, employing the tactics of professional intelligence operatives to cover its tracks and expanding its threat, according to current and former U.S. officials, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing nature of the inquiries.

“In the beginning, they clearly emphasized speed over tradecraft,” said Matthew Levitt, a former counterterrorism official with the FBI and Treasury Department and author of the forthcoming book “Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God.” Ananalysis of the more recent plots shows a shift in tactics, said Levitt, who said the Cyprus case in particular “underscores a very patient, careful and calculated tradecraft.”

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Europe’s Hezbollah Dilemma

hezby MARK  SILVERBERG:

The long-awaited results of the Bulgarian investigation into the Burgas  terrorist bombing last July 18th  has placed enormous pressure  on the European  Union to proscribe Hezbollah as a terrorist organization – a classification  repeatedly called for by the US, Canada and Israel, but so far rejected by EU member states except the  Netherlands.

Hezbollah’s involvement in the Burgas tragedy should make European leaders  rethink the standard excuses they have made to rationalize their lack of action  against Hezbollah. One often-quoted EU excuse maintains that since Hezbollah in  Lebanon has both a military aspect and a political/social aspect, clamping down  on the former would cripple the latter and destabilize the Hezbollah-dominated  government of the country.

While this hair splitting gives Hezbollah the wiggle room it needs to carry  on its nefarious activities in Europe, the argument has no validity given that the EU’s terror list already includes Hamas, which won the  Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, as well as the Communist Party of the  Philippines, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and other radical organizations  that are involved in their countries’ political systems. And given that the EU  has already sanctioned individuals and entities “responsible for the violent  repression against the civilian population in Syria”, there is no logical reason  to exclude Hezbollah as it clearly falls into this category given its continuing  support of the Assad regime.

This argument is especially vacuous given that Hezbollah’s second-in-command  Naim Qassem has already rejected the British separation of his organization into  political and military wings. Qassem told the Los Angeles Times in  2009: “The same leadership that directs the parliamentary and government work  (in Lebanon) also leads jihad actions in the struggle against  Israel.”

Stripping away all this double-speak, EU member states, most notably France  and Germany, fear that proscribing Hezbollah as a terrorist organization could  potentially lead to the activation of Hezbollah terror cells across the  continent. According to Matthew Levitt, the Director of the Washington Institute  for Near East Policy’s counterterrorism and intelligence program, the Europeans  are afraid to stir up a hornet’s nest. “Hezbollah” he writes, “is not very  active in Europe and the Europeans feel that if you poke Hezbollah or Iran in  the eye, they will do the same to you. If you leave them alone, then maybe they  will leave you alone.”

France is particularly apprehensive given the exposure of its UNIFIL forces  in Lebanon to Hezbollah fire, and it is even more concerned that designating  Hezbollah as a terrorist organization would, once again, bring  Hezbollah/Iranian-directed terrorism back to its streets.

Read more at Family Security Matters

Mark Silverberg is an attorney with a  Masters Degree in Political Science and International Relations from the  University of Manitoba, Canada. A former member of the Canadian Justice  Department and a past Director of the Canadian Jewish Congress (Western Office)  based in Vancouver, he served as a Consultant to the Secretary General of the  Jewish Agency in Jerusalem during the first Palestinian intifada. He is a member  of Hadassah’s National Academic Advisory Board, a foreign policy analyst with  the Ariel Center for Policy Research (Israel) and the International Analyst  Network (U.S.), and has been interviewed on Israel National Radio as an  authority on American foreign policy in the Middle East. His editorials and  articles on Middle East affairs have appeared in the NATIV Journal of the Ariel  Center for Policy Research (Israel), Israel Insider, the Conservative Voice,  Family Security Matters, Israel Unity Coalition, The Intelligence Summit,  Midstream and Outpost magazines and Arutz Sheva (Israel National News). He has  lectured extensively on subjects of counterterrorism, jihadism, homeland  security issues and intelligence matters and is a Featured Writer with the New  Media Journal (Chicago). He is the author of “The Quartermasters of Terror:  Saudi Arabia and the Global Islamic Jihad (Wyndham Hall Press, 2005). His  articles and book have been archived under http://www.marksilverberg.com/.

The Burgas Attack: Iran’s Terror War Against Israel

By P. David Hornik

Wednesday’s suicide bombing of an Israeli tour bus in Burgas, Bulgaria killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian tour guide, as well as the bomber himself. Over thirty Israelis were also injured, three of them seriously.

The bomber had a fake driver’s license of the state of Michigan. On Thursday evening Bulgarian media named him as Mehdi Ghezali, a Swedish citizen who was in the Guantanamo detainment camp from 2002 to 2004 and whose freedom was basically secured by the Swedish authorities. Sweden, however, denied the report’s accuracy.

Video footage from the day of the bombing shows that the perpetrator, with long hair, shorts, sneakers, a baseball cap, and a backpack, clearly intended to look like something other than a suicide bomber.

On the other hand, the Israeli daily Haaretz reports that “airport security cameras captured the suspect roaming the airport for at least one hour.” If so, it’s hardly to airport security’s credit that their suspicions weren’t even aroused enough to question him—if they were watching at all.

But Iran—to which Israel’s prime minister, defense minister, and foreign minister publicly assigned ultimate responsibility for the attack—has been trying for months to mass-murder Israelis in less-efficient countries like Thailand, India, Georgia, Kenya, and others. This time the attempt “succeeded”: “Body parts were strewn across the ground, mangled metal hung from the bus’s ripped roof and black smoke billowed over the airport.”

Israel prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said: “All signs point to Iran…. This is [part of] a global Iranian terror onslaught and Israel will react firmly to it.” In a press conference Thursday evening he added “that Israel and world security agencies have caught Hizbullah and Iranian operatives in [numerous] countries, after attacks, planning terror attacks and laying the infrastructure to wage their war of terror.”

Defense Minister Ehud Barak stated: “The immediate executors [of Wednesday’s attack] are Hizbullah operatives, who of course have constant Iranian sponsorship.” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman also said he had conclusive information implicating Hizbullah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Speculations have attributed the attack to Hizbullah’s desire to avenge the 2008 assassination in Damascus of its terror mastermind Imad Mughniyeh, for which it blames Israel, and Iran’s desire to avenge the recent assassinations of nuclear scientists, for which it blames Israel as well. But these are, at most, proximate causes; for both these bodies the destruction of Israel is a central goal, and the murder of its citizens has consistently been a means toward it.

Read more at Front Page

Related article:

U.S. links Iran to nine 2012 plots against Israeli targets around the world: report (nationalpost.com)