Naomi Rodriguez is an emergency medical technician who works 12-hour shifts in the streets of The Bronx, so she immediately recognized the irony when the unremarkable-looking man who lived one floor above her was alleged to be a terrorist sleeper agent.
“I save lives, and here’s this one trying to take them,” she remarked this week from the doorway of her apartment on West 238th Street in the borough’s Kingsbridge Heights section.
Neither Ali Kourani’s attire nor demeanor gave any hint of his religion or ideology.
“How do you say, it’s just unexpected,” Rodriguez added. “Very unexpected.”
She recalled that at the time of his arrest last June, the news called 34-year-old Kourani “the Kingsbridge Heights Terrorist.” But he was not just another lone wolf inspired to Islamic radicalism by internet hate sites and following online instructions to build a bomb in the kitchen of his mom.
As will become clear when he goes on trial Monday, this seemingly unremarkable man whom Rodriguez saw in the stairway is alleged to have been a longtime undercover operative for an international terrorist organization.
Kourani had allegedly been recruited as part of a plan to exact revenge for the car-bomb killing of a terror mastermind whom a former CIA agent called “probably the most intelligent, most capable operative we’ve ever run across, including the KGB or anybody else.” Kourani was, by his own multiple admissions, trained in explosives and small arms, along with secure communications, survival and interrogation as a member of Hezbollah’s External Security Organization (ESO), also known as the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO). Or simply 910.
“Or Hezbollah black ops,” the FBI adds in court papers.
Kourani was born in Lebanon in June 1984 to a family he claims has connections with Hezbollah. He has told the FBI that his clan were “the bin Ladens of Lebanon.” He was 16 when his familial social stature enabled him to attend a 45-day terror boot camp.
“During the training, Kourani was taught to fire AK-47 assault rifles and rocket launchers, as well as basic military tactics, by Hezbollah personnel wearing uniforms,” a subsequent criminal complaint says.
In 2003, at the age of 19, he emigrated to the U.S.. He lived in a two-family house in Queens, and studied biomedical engineering at the City University of New York. The course of his life was to change when Imad Mughniyah—second in command of Hezbollah and founding head of its military, intelligence and security wing—was killed in Damascus in 2008.
Mughniyah was behind the 1983 truck bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut that killed seven CIA operatives along with 10 other Americans, as well as the truck bombing of the Marine barracks there later that year that killed 240. His full list of killings includes the 1985 torture and murder of Beirut CIA station chief William Buckley, the torture and killing of an American sailor aboard a hijacked airliner later that year, and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. Air Force personnel.
Add to that the killing of several hundred Israelis. Not surprisingly, Hezbollah blamed the U.S.and Israel for the killing of its mastermind and vowed revenge. Kourani would tell the FBI that Hezbollah sought to do so by copying an Israeli tactic that had long been used by the Russians, and was later portrayed in the TV series The Americans.
“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.”
Kourani fulfilled the first part of that mission in April of 2009. He applied for a passport the following week, and for a visa to China a week later. He is said to have flown in to Guangzhou, the location of a company that manufactures purported first aid ice packs that contain ammonium nitrate, an active ingredient in explosives. A large number of these “ice packs” would subsequently be found in Hezbollah bomb factories in Thailand and Cyprus. Guangzhou is also a major center for counterfeit clothing, which has been described as a major source of income for Hezbollah.
That same month, Kourani received his bachelor’s degree back in New York. He went on to receive an MBA from Keller Graduate School, making his cover all the more convincing.
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.
In the meantime, he and his wife had two children. One of the kids triggered a brief interruption in the e-mail communications he maintained with his handler via a Toshiba laptop. “His daughter spilled something on it,” an FBI report says.
The Toshiba was destroyed, but Kourani purchased an Apple laptop and allegedly continued his double life. He might have been the perfect sleeper had he not gone into the counterfeit clothing business. He was caught with 190 pairs of Ugg boots after he ran a stop sign in Queens in November 2013.
“I make about two dollars per pair,” the resulting police report quotes him saying. “I buy them for 20 dollars.”
The arrest prompted the NYPD Intelligence Division to interview Kourani on a number of occasions. He came to the further attention of law enforcement in September of 2015, when arriving from a trip to Lebanon back to the same airport he had extensively surveilled.
“Law enforcement personnel determined that Kourani’s cellphone did not contain a memory card, but found a memory card secreted under a travel sticker affixed to Kourani’s U.S. passport,” the complaint reports.
Kourani had gone seven years as an alleged sleeper agent without being activated in any operational capacity. He deduced that the most likely reason was Hezbollah’s 2015 discovery that Mohammad Shawraba, the very man in charge of external operations and the revenge mission in particular, was an Israeli mole. Shawraba was said to have sabotaged numerous attack plans while the sleeper agents slumbered on.
On April 1, 2016—“April’s Fools Day,” Kourani would note—he stopped into his regular Starbucks in Queens. A man approached and showed him an FBI badge.
“We know your affiliation with Hezbollah,’” the agent said.
“You most likely have the wrong person,” Kourani said.
At a McDonald’s next door, the agent handed him a file folder containing a cellphone.
“I'm going to reach you at that phone number,” the agent said. “Make sure that no one knows that you have that phone.”
The FBI repeatedly called Kourani over the days ahead to arrange meetings, during which they urged him to become an informant.
The day then came when an attorney Kourani had retained left a voicemail message with the FBI.
In a series of meetings at his lawyer’s office, Kourani is said to have told the agents about his life as a sleeper agent, but the FBI remained convinced he was not telling all he knew. The agents sought to shake more out of him.
On June 1, 2018, the agents quietly arrested him up in the Bronx, where he was living with relatives after separating from his wife. He was booked on eight counts of terrorism-related offenses at the same federal building he had surveilled for Hezbollah, but waived a court appearance and the criminal complaint was sealed. He was held overnight at a nearby Marriott Hotel.
“We thought keeping him there in custody versus in a prison would help preserve the possibility of cooperation,” the agent would testify.
The next day, the agents and prosecutors concluded that Kourani was still holding back and would not make a reliable informant. He was brought to court and the criminal complaint against him was unsealed. He was held without bail.
Search warrants were executed for his emails and internet history, as well as his Bronx apartment above Naomi Rodriguez. Agents there found lined notebook paper on which Kourani appeared to have handwritten notes in English concerning what he wanted from the FBI, including cash and an apartment in a Manhattan building with a doorman.
Kourani retained a new lawyer, Alexei Schacht, who sought to suppress what amounted to a multi-installment confession. The judge ruled the statements to the FBI admissible and they are expected to be used against him at the trial set to commence Monday.
Up in the Bronx, Rodriguez told The Daily Beast that Kourani was living directly above her with a cousin and the cousin’s teenage son.
She described the teenager as, “a good kid… really good,” adding, “We don't have an elevator. When I do food shopping, he helps me carry some bags or helps me with the shopping cart.”
She could only remember seeing Kourani once, as she is seldom home, leaving early to work 12-hour shifts as an EMT and returning late from attending school to become a paramedic. She is also raising two boys of her own, aged 10 and 4.
Of the accused terror sleeper agent who was her upstairs neighbor, she observed, “At the end of the day he was still willing to answer that phone call and do what they asked. You’re saying, ‘Okay, call me when you need me.’”
She added, “Being willing is just as guilty.”