Archive for the ‘Hezbollah in Latin America’ category

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

June 23, 2017

Analysis: 2 US cases provide unique window into Iran’s global terror network, Long War Journal, 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.

El Debek’s alleged admissions during interviews with the FBI

As with Kourani, the FBI’s case against Samer el Debek is based in no small part on his interviews with the Bureau. El Debek was interviewed “in person a total of five times between” Sept. 8, 2016 and May 23, 2017, as well as “by phone on a number of occasions.” His testimony was supplemented with evidence culled from his social media, emails and travel documents.

According to the complaint in his case, El Debek allegedly admitted that: he was “first recruited by Hizballah in late 2007 or 2008” and eventually received a salary of $1,000 per month plus “medical expenses”; he “received military training from Hizballah in Lebanon,” including how to use assault rifles, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and other weapons; he “was trained on at least four occasions between 2009 and 2013 in surveillance and counter-surveillance techniques”; he “attended Hizballah religious training,” during which “a sheikh taught religious rules and topics including martyrdom ideology”; he was trained on the “handling of explosives and the creation of explosive devices,” including landmines, improvised explosive devices and how to remotely detonate such bombs; and he was “taught how specifically to target people and buildings.”

An FBI Special Agent Bomb Technician discussed the “bomb-making techniques” Hizballah imparted to El Debek and found that he “had a high degree of technical sophistication in this area.”

Indirect ties to Iran’s worldwide terror campaign in 2012

Several of the allegations against Kourani and El Debek connect them – albeit indirectly – to an IJO network responsible for orchestrating a wave of terrorist plots on behalf of the Iranian regime in 2012.

That year witnessed a “marked resurgence of Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism, through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF), its Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), and Tehran’s ally” Hizballah, the State Department said in its Country Reports on Terrorism 2012. Iran and Hizballah’s “terrorist activity…reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s, with attacks plotted in Southeast Asia, Europe, and Africa.”

Foggy Bottom went on to cite plots and attacks in Cyprus, Georgia, India, Kenya, and Thailand as evidence of Iran’s worldwide campaign of terror in 2012. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, State Department highlights Iran’s ‘marked resurgence’ of state-sponsored terrorism.]

Some of these same plots – all carried out under the direction of Hizballah’s Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO) – are referenced in the complaints filed against Kourani and El Debek.

On July 18, 2012, Hizballah bombed a tour bus carrying Israelis at the Burgas Airport in Bulgaria. Five Israelis and one Bulgarian were killed. The Bulgarian government publicly fingered Hizballah as the culprit.

The FBI discussed the Burgas attack with El Debek, who explained that the bomber, Mohamad Husseini, “was connected to his family.” Husseini was the nephew of El Debek’s aunt. El Debek also “identified a photograph of Husseini,” explaining that “he knew of Husseini’s membership in Hizballah’s ‘External Security’ unit” – meaning the IJO, El Debek’s own parent organization.

The complaint does not cite any evidence directly tying El Debek to the Burgas bombing. But the FBI assessed that El Debek’s training would allow him to build an explosive device similar to the one that killed several Israelis.

The “techniques and methods in which Hizballah trained” El Debek to build an improvised explosive device “are substantially similar to those used to construct the IED used in the” Burgas bombing, FBI Special Agent Daniel M. Ganci wrote in an affidavit. Ganci relied on his conversations with another FBI bomb expert in formulating his assessment.

The complaints cite the IJO’s activities in Thailand, pointing to the Jan. 2012 arrest of Hussein Atris, who was detained as “he tried to board a flight at Bangkok airport.” Atris “subsequently led law enforcement personnel to a commercial building near Bangkok that housed a cache of nearly 10,000 pounds of urea-based fertilizer and 10 gallons of ammonium nitrate,” which “can be used to construct explosives.”

Atris wasn’t the only Iranian-sponsored operative in Thailand at the time. In Feb. 2012, two Iranian men were arrested by Thai police and a third by Malaysian authorities after the group “accidentally set off explosives that were allegedly intended to target Israeli diplomats,” according to the State Department. The explosives “were similar to bombs targeting Israeli diplomats in Georgia and India” during that same timeframe. Still other Iranian agents “successfully fled” Thailand. All of the operatives traveled “through Malaysia” to Bangkok.

In 2009, years before the high-profile arrests, El Debek himself traveled to Bangkok, apparently slipping in and out of Thailand unnoticed. According to the complaint, it was El Debek’s “first mission abroad” on behalf Hizballah. El Debek allegedly told the FBI that he was supposed “to clean up the explosive precursors” left behind at a house in Bangkok by other Hizballah members who were forced to flee “because they were under surveillance.”

Like his Hizballah compatriots who followed him, El Debek traveled through Malaysia en route to Thailand. While in Malaysia, “he met his IJO handler,” who “provided him with a cover story” to use in Bangkok.

El Debek was to hire a sex worker “to draw out any surveillance on the house.” El Debek told the FBI that he did as his handler instructed him, hiring a “female escort” to probe for any suspicious activity around the home. While El Debek watched, she entered the home without any problems. Now confident that authorities weren’t watching the home, El Debek later returned “and found approximately 50 boxes containing materials sealed in plastic.” He told the FBI that “the majority, if not all” of the boxes contained ammonium nitrate. He removed as many as he could in “his rented vehicle” and dumped the rest. Curiously, however, he was instructed a “day or two later” to “return the explosive precursors to the house and pay rent to the landlord.” He complied before returning to Lebanon via Malaysia.

The complaint does not explicitly connect the “explosive precursors” El Debek handled in 2009 to Hizballah’s plots three years later. But the charges, assuming they are true, confirm that the Iranian proxy was laying the groundwork for operations in Thailand years in advance.

In May 2009, Kourani made his own suspicious trip, which also may be tied to the events that unfolded in 2012. Kourani traveled to Guangzhou, China, where the manufacturer of “ammonium nitrate-based First Aid ice packs” was located. The FBI found that these same types of ice packs, from the same manufacturer, were “seized in connection with” the thwarted IJO plot in Thailand in 2012, as well as a separate foiled operation in Cyprus.

In 2014, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned a number of Hizballah “front companies” and “agents” used for procurement around the world. One of these, Stars International, Ltd., has a subsidiary in Guangzhou.

El Debek’s surveillance in Panama

Another one of El Debek’s alleged missions for Hizballah took him to Panama. He visited the tiny Central American nation twice, with his first trip coming in 2011. El Debek explained that “his operational taskings included learning to drive in Panama, determining the cost of opening a business, locating the U.S. and Israeli Embassies, and determining how to get to the Panama Canal.” He was “instructed to case and identify security procedures at the Canal and the Israeli Embassy,” but said “his purpose for locating the U.S. Embassy was simply to know its location.” According to the complaint, the IJO operative also “located hardware stores” and other places where “acetone and battery acid,” both “explosive precursors,” could be acquired.

El Debek’s second alleged mission to Panama came in 2012. This time it “was more focused on the Panama Canal,” he explained. Hizballah “asked him to identify areas of weakness and construction at the Canal, and provide information about Canal security and how close someone could get to a ship.” He “took a lot of photographs of the Canal, which he later provided to the IJO.”

His “IJO handlers” were keenly interested in the U.S. Embassy, including “details about its security procedures,” as well as “periods of heavy traffic into and out of the U.S. Embassy, and the locations of houses and apartments in close vicinity to” it. El Debek claimed he didn’t go into the embassy, nor did he take photographs of it, so he “did not have a significant understanding of” the Americans’ “security procedures.” He claimed that he merely informed his “IJO handlers” that “people waiting for a visa appointment entered the Embassy and then waited for their appointment inside.”

After returning from Panama to Lebanon, he “met with his IJO handler and the handler’s superior,” providing them “with maps, notes, pictures, and the camera he used in Panama.”

El Debek said that after performing these missions, however, Hizballah turned on him, accusing him of “spying for the United States.” He allegedly offered a “false confession after repeated interrogations,” telling Hizballah “that he worked for the FBI, CIA, and police.” He supposedly named his American handlers as “Jeff and Michael” (names he made up) and said he was “paid $500,000” for his services to the U.S. government.

It is not clear why Hizballah would think that El Debek had doubled-crossed them.

The cult of martyrdom has become a prominent feature of Sunni jihadism, but El Debek’s case includes important reminders that it is still a powerful concept within Iranian-sponsored Shiite jihadism as well. According to the complaint, he performed multiple searches on Facebook using terms such as “martyrs of the holy defense,” “martyrs of Islamic resistance,” “Hizballah martyrs,” and “martyrs of the Islamic resistance in Lebanon.”

Background on Hizballah’s Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO)

The world first heard of Hizballah’s “Islamic Jihad Organization” (IJO) in the early 1980s, when Iran’s terrorist proxy struck American and European targets in Lebanon. The IJO was poorly understood at the time. So when the group claimed responsibility for several operations, and threatened to execute more, there was confusion over which party was the real culprit. Some reporting still reflects the initial uncertainty to this day.

In reality, the IJO was one of Iran’s and Hizballah’s early fronts for waging jihad against the West. Western forces were deployed to Lebanon as peacekeepers in the wake of Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982. The Iranian regime and its surrogates went to work. The CIA found that hundreds of members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were deployed to Lebanon, where they built terror networks and began spreading Ayatollah Khomeini’s radical ideology. The IRGC was based in Baalbek and Iran coordinated the IRGC’s activities via its embassy in Damascus, often with the support of Assad regime. The IJO was a key part of these early Iranian plans.

The IJO claimed responsibility for the Apr. 18, 1983 US Embassy bombing in Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans. According to Langley, the bombing was the “deadliest attack in CIA history,” as some of the Americans killed were Agency personnel.

After the Embassy bombing, the CIA’s William F. Buckley volunteered to serve as Station Chief in Lebanon. In March 1984, the IJO kidnapped Buckley. He died in the terrorists’ custody in June 1985. The IJO claimed that it executed Buckley in Oct. 1985, months after US officials say he perished.

US officials also identified the IJO as the Iranian arm behind the Oct. 23, 1983 suicide bombs targeting peacekeepers in the Multinational Force in Lebanon (MNF). Twin vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices rocked the barracks for U.S. Marines and French peacekeepers, killing 241 Americans and 58 French service members. The fingerprints of Hizballah’s IJO and its terror master, Imad Mughniyah (pictured on the right), were all over the attacks.

A Sept. 27, 1984 analysis by the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence found that the IJO “almost certainly carried out” the Apr. 1983 U.S. Embassy bombing, as well as the Oct. 1983 attacks on the Marines and French paratroopers. The CIA referred to “Islamic Jihad” (or the IJO) as Hizballah’s “terrorist component,” explaining that it operated with “Iranian assistance” and was “determined to drive the US and Israel out of Lebanon and to establish an Islamic state there.”

That same CIA analysis pointed to an “overwhelming body of circumstantial evidence” showing that Hizballah operated “with Iranian support under the cover name of Islamic Jihad.” Another now declassified CIA assessment concluded that the IJO was not “a distinct organization with identifiable leaders,” but instead “an umbrella name used by a number of Iranian-dominated Shia extremist groups” in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.

An observation in the CIA’s Sept. 1984 assessment proved to be a harbinger of things to come. “Radical leaders almost certainly viewed the withdrawal of the Marine contingent from Beirut last winter as proof of the effectiveness of terrorist tactics,” the Agency’s analysts wrote in reference to the aftermath of the IJO’s Oct. 1983 bombing.

Iranian-backed Shiite jihadists were not the only ones who held this view. At the time, a certain young extremist named Osama bin Laden was watching as events unfolded in Lebanon. Bin Laden believed that the American withdrawal signaled weakness. While stationed in Sudan in the early 1990s, bin Laden and al Qaeda even turned to Hizballah, Mughniyah and Iran for assistance in learning how to conduct simultaneous suicide attacks. “Bin Laden reportedly showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs such as the one that had killed 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983,” the 9/11 Commission later found. Al Qaeda cadres were trained by Hizballah in Lebanon, as well as in Iran.

Hizballah’s terrorist innovation would become al Qaeda’s modus operandi. Bin Laden’s men directly modeled the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania after Hizballah’s 1983 attacks. As a U.S. court later found, Iran and Hizballah provided al Qaeda with the “technical expertise” necessary to carry out the 1998 Embassy bombings. Bin Laden believed he could drive the U.S. out of the Middle East if his men replicated Mughniyah’s early operations. However, the al Qaeda founder was proven wrong on that score.

Hizballah’s IJO was the spearhead for a series of other Iranian-backed, anti-Western operations in Lebanon and elsewhere. Bombings, kidnappings, assassinations – all were tied to the IJO in the 1980s. A car bombing outside of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait in 1983 and the assassination of a Saudi government official in Spain were both claimed by the IJO, according to the CIA.
The 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847 was another instance of IJO-orchestrated terror.

Callers claiming to be affiliated with the group phoned in additional threats around the globe, promising more terror if all Western and Israeli forces didn’t evacuate Lebanon.

In 1987, on the fourth anniversary of the Marine barracks and French paratroopers bombings, a statement attributed to the IJO was sent to the press. “America failed to do anything. It just collected the limbs of its dead and fled from the Muslims’ fists in Lebanon,” the statement read, according to an account in UPI at the time. The group threatened more attacks against American interests. “And this, with God’s backing, will occur in other Muslim countries soon at the hands of the students of our blessed martyrs.” Photos of two men held hostage by the IJO — American journalist Terry Anderson and French journalist Jean-Paul Kauffman – were attached to the message, along with images the buildings bombed in Oct. 1983. Luckily, both Anderson and Kauffman were subsequently released.

This early campaign of Iranian terror has had lasting effects throughout the region. Some of its participants have continued to push the regime’s agenda decades after the fact.

One such figure is commonly known as Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis (also identified as Jamal Jafaar Mohammed Ali Ebrahimi), the deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which is currently fighting the Islamic State inside Iraq. Muhandis, a close confidant of IRGC-Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, was designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist in 2009. The Treasury Department noted that he had “participated in the bombing of Western embassies in Kuwait and the attempted assassination of the Emir of Kuwait in the early 1980s.” Muhandis “was subsequently convicted in absentia by the Kuwaiti government for his role in the bombing and attempted assassination.”

Like so many plots during this timeframe, some sources identified Imad Mughniyah as the chief architect of the 1983 embassy bombings in Kuwait — the same attacks Muhandis was later convicted of participating in. One of Mughniyah’s family members, Mustafa Youssef Badreddin, was among the 17 people arrested in Kuwait and convicted of carrying out the attacks on the U.S. and French embassies, among other targets. In the years that followed, Iran’s terrorist proxies repeatedly demanded that members of this group (dubbed the “Dawa 17”) be released from custody in exchange for Western hostages.

Hizballah’s IJO wasn’t finished in the 1980s. And its operational reach extended into Central and South America. For instance, the IJO claimed responsibility for the Mar. 17, 1992 suicide truck bombing at the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A little over two years later, on July 18, 1994, another Hizballah suicide terrorist drove a bomb-laden vehicle into a Jewish community center (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, or AMIA) in Buenos Aires. INTERPOL subsequently issued Red Notices for Mughiyah and several others for their role in the devastating explosions.

Hizballah’s IJO allegedly wanted revenge for the death of Mughniyah

In Feb. 2008, Mughniyah was assassinated in a highly professional operation in Damascus, Syria. The hit was likely carried out by the Israelis, possibly with the assistance of their American allies. The recently released court filings indicate that Hizballah has been seeking revenge, including inside the U.S., since then. Those same documents identify Mughniyah as the IJO’s “leader” until his death.

Fadi, the IJO handler, allegedly “directed” Ali Kourani “to identify and collect intelligence regarding individuals in the United States affiliated with the” Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). According to the complaint, Kourani “believed that the IJO gave this tasking to facilitate, among other things, assassinations of IDF personnel in retaliation for” Mughniyah’s death. Kourani “used a social media account to identify members or associates [of the IDF] in the New York City area, and he described his search methodology to Fadi.”

The cases against Kourani and El Debek suggest that the U.S. government will be forced to contend with Hizballah’s international network for the foreseeable future. Just this past week, in fact, the State Department amended its terrorist designation of Hizballah to include additional aliases for the group.

Hizballah’s IJO arguably began the current jihadists’ war against the West in the early 1980s. And it is still plotting more than three decades later.

*The photo of Ali Kourani was first used during a segment broadcast by NY1. A similar image was also used by NBC New York.

America Should Be Ready, Venezuela Might Become the Next Syria

April 24, 2017

America Should Be Ready, Venezuela Might Become the Next Syria, Town HallDavid Grantham, April 24, 2017

Making matters worse, this regime has allowed international criminal networks and terrorist organizations, like Hezbollah, to thrive within the country’s borders. This permissive environment has thoroughly compromised the upper echelons of the Venezuelan government and allowed illicit behavior to permeate the economy and society.

Most important, the same actors in Russia and Iran that prevent Assad’s demise are the same players underwriting Venezuelan tyranny. Remember that Vice President Tareck El Aissami is Hezbollah’s go-to guy in the administration. Experts should not be fooled into thinking that geographic distance will dissuade Russia or Iran from intervening on Maduro’s behalf. Neither country will so easily cede such a strategic and lucrative relationship – one that each country has spent years cultivating.

***************************

Said former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Nazi buildup in Europe: “When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure.” The unwillingness to act when such action would have been simple and effective constitutes the “endless repetition of history,” he concluded.

Today, observers would rightly associate this statement with Syria. But Churchill did not make this proclamation so future generations would seek out examples that affirmed his logic. He made the statement so future generations would break that dreadful repetition. This is not just a quote of self reflection – it’s a call to action.

Syria is thoroughly out of hand and late remedies are now being applied. The cycle of historical inaction will not be broken in Syria. Pundits, politicians and military officials would be wise to stop reliving what could have been done there, and start looking at what can be done elsewhere. Therefore, the American government must determine the likelihood of Venezuela becoming another Syria – this time in the western hemisphere. The United States and its Latin American allies must then collectively decide whether to do anything about it.

In their quest for more and more power, Chavez and then Maduro made reliable access to basic necessities a virtual impossibility. Maduro then had the Supreme Court dissolve the Congress after the Venezuelan people stocked the legislature with opposition members through democratic elections. Although international outcry forced him to partially rescind that order, Maduro continues to issue tyrannical edicts that will have the same effect at a slower pace. Now the Maduro regime has armed loyalists to seek out and kill dissenters. Over twenty people have died in riots over the last few weeks.

This administration would rather starve its people than relinquish power. Maduro would rather dismantle government and assassinate opponents than keep the country viable. History tells us that such despotism and subsequent international inaction can lead to Assad-like levels of oppression.

Making matters worse, this regime has allowed international criminal networks and terrorist organizations, like Hezbollah, to thrive within the country’s borders. This permissive environment has thoroughly compromised the upper echelons of the Venezuelan government and allowed illicit behavior to permeate the economy and society.

Most important, the same actors in Russia and Iran that prevent Assad’s demise are the same players underwriting Venezuelan tyranny. Remember that Vice President Tareck El Aissami is Hezbollah’s go-to guy in the administration. Experts should not be fooled into thinking that geographic distance will dissuade Russia or Iran from intervening on Maduro’s behalf. Neither country will so easily cede such a strategic and lucrative relationship – one that each country has spent years cultivating.

President Trump must be prepared for the possibility of a Syria in the western hemisphere. The administration has already taken steps to sanction high-level Venezuelan officials for their work with cartels and known terrorist organizations. But they must also be prepared for preemptive action:

  • Anticipate and be prepared for the possibility that Russia, Iran and/or Hezbollah will help Maduro crush dissent, covertly or otherwise. Do not be caught off guard when they block U.N. resolutions, cripple Maduro’s adversaries through cyber attacks, or, in an extreme situation, deploy military assets.
  • Consider how and where to erect safe zones because a failing state may create a refugee crisis in a region already plagued by economic and social instability.
  • Work with Latin American allies to demand a democratic resolution. Don’t wait for collapse to be spurred into action.

This is not a call for military intervention. It is merely a reminder that the arc of history bends toward inaction – something we often come to regret.

Hizballah’s Ongoing Threat to U.S. National Security

March 8, 2017

Hizballah’s Ongoing Threat to U.S. National Security, Investigative Project on Terrorism, March 7, 2017

Most analyses of Hizballah focus on the terrorist group’s intervention in Syria or its threat to Israel. But the Iranian-backed organization maintains a significant presence in and near the United States, threatening national security. Current American proposals to strengthen borders and immigration measures may be limited to address this important, yet poorly understood, threat.

A recent Al-Arabiya article examines Hizballah’s North American threat.

It has the expertise to build advanced tunnels on the southern U.S. border, enabling Hizballah terrorists and Mexican cartel operatives to infiltrate the United States. Relations between Iranian-backed proxies, including Hizballah, and Latin American drug cartels are well established. Mexican gang members learn from Hizballah’s combat experience and use of advanced weaponry. Hizballah, in turn, derives a significant portion of its finances from the drug trade and other illicit activities.

In recent years, security officials in southwestern states noticed a rise in tattoos featuring Hizballah’s insignia among imprisoned drug cartel operatives. This surprising trend indicates a strengthened relationship between the terrorist group and Mexican gang members. In line with its foreign policy, Iranian operatives infiltrating Latin America seek to convert individuals to adopt its extremist Shi’ite ideology. Over the years, pro Iranian websites have proliferated across Latin America, in an attempt to cultivate support for the Islamic Republic.

Powerful Latin American politicians also help Iran and Hizballah penetrate the region and threaten the United States. In February, CNN received a 2013 secret intelligence document from several Latin American countries demonstrating ties between Venezuelan Vice President Tarreck El Aissami and 173 Venezuelan identification cards and passports issued to people from the Middle East, including Hizballah operatives. El Aissami “took charge of issuing, granting visas and nationalizing citizens from different countries, especially Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Iranians, and Iraqis,” the report shows.

Iranian and Hizballah operatives have cultivated and consolidated operating bases in South America, especially in the tri-border area (TBA) of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. With a large Muslim population featuring significant numbers of Hizballah sympathizers, the region is ripe for recruitment, arms smuggling and drug trafficking. Hizballah continues to exploit other Lebanese Shi’ite diaspora communities, including in the United States, to strengthen its presence worldwide.

In 2011, the United States disrupted a plot led by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in cooperation with a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington.

The problematic nexus between Iranian-backed operatives, including Hizballah, and Mexican drug cartels allows terrorists to earn big money to fuel their violent operations. These connections also enable Hizballah to make inroads into the United States through its porous border with Mexico.

American intelligence reports show that Hizballah maintains a significant network of sleeper cells in the United States. Though Hizballah has not conducted a major attack on U.S. soil, the group could decide to strike key American sites should U.S.-Iran relations deteriorate substantially. Preparations to combat Islamist terrorism broadly should strongly consider the nuanced and growing Hizballah threat to U.S. national security.

 

Trump’s Pick for DHS Secretary Warned About Iranian Infiltration of South America

December 7, 2016

Trump’s Pick for DHS Secretary Warned About Iranian Infiltration of South America, Washington Free Beacon, December 7, 2016

gestures with retired US Marine Corp General John Kelly Donald Trump prospective cabinet members at Trump International Golf Club, New Jersey, USA - 20 Nov 2016 (Rex Features via AP Images)

Trump gestures with retired US Marine Corp General John Kelly Donald Trump prospective cabinet members at Trump International Golf Club, New Jersey, USA – 20 Nov 2016 (Rex Features via AP Images)

President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to head the Department of Homeland Security has been warning for some time about Iranian influence along America’s southern border and in South America in another sign that the incoming administration is seeking to tackle the Islamic Republic’s terrorist footprint from its first days in office.

Retired Gen. John Kelly, a former commander of U.S. Southern Command, has been sounding the alarm about Iran’s efforts to counter U.S. influence in Central and South America, according to past testimony.

Kelly is expected to focus on this issue when he takes over DHS, which has been plagued by criticism about its failed attempts to seal the southern border under the Obama administration.

The selection follows a line of high-profile picks by Trump who are known for their outspoken criticism of Iran and the Obama administration’s diplomacy with the Islamic Republic.

Kelly, during his time as Southcom’s commander, informed Congress last year that Iran is bolstering its ties with Latin American countries in order to use the region as a base for operations.

“Over the last 15 years Iran has periodically sought closer ties with regional governments, albeit with mixed results,” Kelly said in testimony to Congress in March 2015. “Iranian legislators visited Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua to advocate for increased economic and diplomatic cooperation. Iran’s outreach is predicated on circumventing sanctions and countering U.S. influence.”

Iran is building “cultural centers” in these countries to build support for its radical ideology among local Muslim populations, according to Kelly.

“Iran has established more than 80 ‘cultural centers’ in a region with an extremely small Muslim population,” he said. “The purported purpose of these centers is to improve Iran’s image, promote Shi’a Islam, and increase Iran’s political influence in the region. As the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, Iran’s involvement in the region and these cultural centers is a matter for concern, and its diplomatic, economic, and political engagement is closely monitored.”

Kelly has also warned that Hezbollah, a terror organization primarily funded by Iran, has been building support in Latin America. Kelly said terrorist organizations could exploit the porous southern border to infiltrate the United States.

“Members, supporters, and adherents of Islamic extremist groups are present in Latin America,” including Hezbollah, Kelly said in 2014.

Kelly described Iran’s presence in the region as “a matter for concern.”

Trump’s selection of Kelly is winning early support from congressional Republicans who have worked with the former commander.

“In my capacity as chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, I have worked firsthand with Gen. Kelly on numerous Western Hemisphere security issues during his tenure as the head of the Southern Command,” Rep. Jeff Duncan (R., S.C.), said in a statement. “He fully understands the threats from ISIS, Iran’s activities in South and Central America, as well as the risks America faces due to our porous southern border.”

“General Kelly has a wealth of experience and knowledge of the threats facing our country in the 21st Century, and I am confident he will help the president-elect form a robust strategy to protect America from radical Islamic extremism here at home, protecting American sovereignty and dealing with the numerous security issues here in the homeland,” Duncan said.

One source in direct contact with the Trump transition team told the Washington Free Beacon that Kelly brings direct experience with Iran’s infiltration of South America.

“General Kelly is an outstanding national security pick. It’s another sign the Trump administration knows exactly how Iran has been destabilizing countries and sowing terror across the globe,” the source said. “The Obama administration too often turned a blind eye to Iranian activities on U.S. soil, and even downplayed an Iranian terror plot to launch an attack in Washington, D.C. Clearly the Trump administration is signaling that it will do exactly the opposite, and will target Iranian aggression across all areas of national security.”