Recruited Hizballah Operative in the US Sentenced to 40 Years in Prison

A 35 year old man who came to the US legally in 2003 was recruited by Hizballah sometime between 2006 and 2008 (22-24 yrs old) to be an covert operative in the United States. In 2008 he submitted his application to become a US citizen under instructions from his handler and became one in 2009, receiving his US passport. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering in 2009, and a Master of Business Administration in 2013 and was told to open a business in New York City to be used as a cover for Hizballah activities. All the classic signs of espionage tradecraft and a deep penetration agent are in this case.

(DOJ) The Department of Justice today announced that Ali Kourani, 35, was sentenced to 40 years in prison based on terrorism, sanctions, and immigration convictions arising from Kourani’s illicit work as an operative for the Islamic Jihad Organization, Hizballah’s external attack-planning component.

“While living in the United States, Kourani served as an operative of Hizballah in order to help the foreign terrorist organization prepare for potential future attacks against the United States.  With today’s sentence, he is being held accountable for his crimes. The evidence at trial showed that Kourani searched for suppliers who could provide weapons for such attacks, identified people who could be recruited or targeted for violence, and gathered information about and conducted surveillance of potential targets within our country.  Such covert activities conducted on U.S. soil are a clear threat to our national security and I applaud the agents, analysts, and prosecutors who are responsible for this investigation and prosecution.” —Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers

“Ali Kourani was recruited, trained, and deployed by Hizballah’s Islamic Jihad Organization to plan and execute acts of terrorism around New York City.  After spending years conducting surveillance on the City’s critical infrastructure, federal buildings, international airports, and even daycare centers, he is now the first Islamic Jihad Organization operative to be convicted and sentenced for his crimes against the United States. The lengthy prison term imposed today on Kourani sends an important message to Hizballah and the Islamic Jihad Organization:  If you are caught planning harm against this City and its residents, you will face justice and be held accountable.” —U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman for the Southern District of New York

 “Ali Kourani’s arrest was a reminder to us all that New York City and its surrounding areas remain primary targets for those looking to conduct a violent attack against our way of life. His sentencing today, however, is also a reminder of the many successes of our FBI JTTFs nationwide, and their never-ending determination to disrupt the plans of those working to harm us.” — FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr.

“This sentencing is an another example of the dedicated work of the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force and the close partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District, to combat terror and hold accountable those who seek to support and promote terrorist groups. I thank the NYPD investigators and our law enforcement partners whose hard work brought Mr. Kourani to justice.” — Police Commissioner Dermot F. Shea

As reflected in the criminal Complaint, Indictment, court filings, and evidence presented at trial:

Hizballah is a Lebanon-based Shia Islamic organization with political, social, and terrorist components that was founded in the 1980s with support from Iran.  Since Hizballah’s formation, the organization has been responsible for numerous terrorist attacks that have killed hundreds, including United States citizens and military personnel.

In 1997, the U.S. Department of State designated Hizballah a Foreign Terrorist Organization, pursuant to Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, and it remains so designated today.

In 2010, State Department officials described Hizballah as the most technically capable terrorist group in the world, and a continued security threat to the United States.

The Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO), which is also known as the External Security Organization and “910,” is a highly compartmentalized component of Hizballah responsible for the planning, preparation, and execution of intelligence, counterintelligence, and terrorist activities on behalf of Hizballah outside of Lebanon.

In July 2012, an IJO operative detonated explosives on a bus transporting Israeli tourists in the vicinity of an airport in Burgas, Bulgaria, killing six people and injuring 32 others.

Law enforcement authorities have disrupted several other IJO attack-planning operations around the world, including:

  • the arrest of an IJO operative surveilling Israeli targets in Cyprus in 2012,
  • the seizure of bomb-making precursor chemicals in Thailand in 2012, including chemicals manufactured by a medical devices company based in Guangzhou, China (Guangzhou Company-1),
  • and a similar seizure of chemicals manufactured by Guangzhou Company-1 in Cyprus in May 2015 in connection with the arrest of another IJO operative.

Kourani, who was born in Lebanon, attended Hizballah-sponsored weapons training in Lebanon in 2000 when he was approximately 16 years old.

After lawfully entering the United States in 2003, Kourani obtained a Bachelor of Science in biomedical engineering in 2009, and a Master of Business Administration in 2013.

Kourani and certain of his relatives were in Lebanon during the summer 2006 conflict between Israel and Hizballah, when a residence belonging to his family was destroyed.  At some point by 2008, IJO recruited Kourani to its ranks. 

In August 2008, Kourani submitted an application for naturalization in the United States in which he falsely claimed, among other things, that he was not affiliated with a terrorist organization.

In April 2009, Kourani became a naturalized citizen and was issued a United States passport.  Despite claiming in his passport application that he had no travel plans, Kourani traveled to Guangzhou, China – the location of Guangzhou Company-1 – on May 3, 2009.  The purpose of the trip was to develop relationships that the IJO could rely on to obtain ammonium nitrate to be used as an explosive precursor chemical.

IJO assigned Kourani an IJO handler, or mentor, responsible for providing him with taskings, debriefings, and arranging training.  Kourani sometimes communicated with his handler using coded email communications, including messages sent by the handler that informed Kourani of the need to return to Lebanon.

In order to establish contact with his handler when Kourani returned to Lebanon, Kourani called a telephone number associated with a pager (the IJO Pager) and provided a code that he understood was specific to him.  After contacting the IJO Pager, the handler would contact Kourani to set up an in-person meeting by calling a phone belonging to one of Kourani’s relatives.

The IJO also provided Kourani with additional training in tradecraft, weapons, and tactics.  In 2011, for example, Kourani attended a weapons training camp in the vicinity of Birkat Jabrur, Lebanon, where he used a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, an AK-47 assault rifle, an MP5 submachine gun, a PKS machine gun (a Russian-made belt-fed weapon) and a Glock pistol.

Based on other taskings from IJO personnel, which IJO personnel conveyed during periodic in-person meetings when Kourani returned to Lebanon, Kourani conducted operations, which he understood to be aimed at preparing for potential future Hizballah attacks.   These covert activities included:

  • searching for weapons suppliers in the United States who could provide firearms to support IJO operations;
  • identifying individuals affiliated with the Israeli Defense Force whom the IJO could either recruit or target for violence;
  • gathering information regarding operations and security at airports in the United States and elsewhere, including JFK International Airport in New York; and
  • surveilling U.S. military and law enforcement facilities in New York City, including the federal building at 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan.

Kourani transmitted some of the products of his surveillance and intelligence-gathering efforts back to IJO personnel in Lebanon using digital storage media.

In addition to the prison term, Kourani was also sentenced to five years supervised release.

Assistant Attorney General Demers and Mr. Berman praised the outstanding efforts of the FBI’s New York Joint Terrorism Task Force, which principally consists of agents from the FBI and detectives from the New York City Police Department.

This prosecution is being handled by the Office’s Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit.  Assistant U.S. Attorneys Amanda L. Houle and Emil J. Bove III are in charge of the case, with assistance from Trial Attorney Bridget Behling of the Counterterrorism Section.

Other

Ali Kourani Convicted in Manhattan Federal Court for Covert Terrorist Activities on Behalf of Hizballah’s Islamic Jihad Organization (DOJ, 17 May 2019)

Bronx Man And Michigan Man Arrested For Terrorist Activities On Behalf Of Hizballah’s Islamic Jihad Organization (DOJ, 8 June 2017)

The Hezbollah Sleeper Agent Busted for Black Ops in America (Daily Beast, 5 May 2019)

. . . “Kourani stated that the ESO wanted to copy the Israeli Mossad and sought to recruit ‘sleepers,’” an FBI report says. “These sleepers were tasked to maintain ostensibly normal lives the world over… [and] could be tasked with operational activity should the ESO decide to take action.”

Kourani was in Lebanon visiting his family when a cleric in his home village recruited him for the new effort, likely because of his education and the fact that he was already rooted in the U.S.. He was a perfect candidate for a “sleeper,” a seemingly ordinary person leading a normal life who could be activated to carry out terrorist acts when called.

The new recruit was instructed to don a helmet with a blacked-out visor. He was driven to meet the man who would allegedly be his handler.

“Whom Kourani knew as ‘Fadi,’” the criminal complaint says. “Fadi typically wore a mask during their meetings.”

The complaint details one of Fadi’s first instructions: “Obtain United States citizenship and a U.S. passport as soon as possible.” . . .

. . . In 2011, Fadi summoned Kourani to Lebanon for military training. He returned to the U.S. and allegedly followed Fadi’s instructions to identify possible sources of weapons and to research how to open businesses in New York that Hezbollah could use.

As cover for the storage of firearms intended for ESO assassinations and attacks in the U.S.,” the FBI report explains.

Kourani was further asked to scout out the security around the Israeli consulate in New York and identify Jewish businessmen in the city who were former or current members of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) for “either assassination or recruitment purposes,” according to the FBI report.

The list of surveillance targets is also said to have included the federal building in Manhattan where the FBI has its offices and a Secret Service facility in Brooklyn. Kourani allegedly made videos of a U.S. Army Armory in Manhattan, and JFK airport. . . .

Hezbollah Isn’t Just in Beirut. It’s in New York, Too. (Foreign Policy, 14 June 2019)
In recent years, Hezbollah has stepped up its activities beyond Lebanon’s borders. This uptick has been clearest in the Middle East—in Iraq, Yemen, and especially Syria—but plots have also been thwarted in South America, Asia, Europe, and now, possibly, the United States.

Reports of Hezbollah activity in North America are not new, though such reporting tends to focus on the group’s fundraising, money laundering, procurement, or other logistical activities from Vancouver to Miami. But last month, the criminal prosecution and conviction in New York of the Hezbollah operative Ali Kourani revealed disturbing new information about the extent of Hezbollah’s operations and activities in the United States and Canada. . . .

Hizballah: Recent Arrests Reveal Pre-Operational Planning (NJ Office of Homeland Security)