When U.S. authorities allegedly discovered a Bronx man with terror training checking out potential targets in New York, they might have assumed he was inspired by ISIS.
Instead, it seems the city was facing a very unusual terror threat.
Ali Kourani was an alleged sleeper agent recruited by Hezbollah’s external terror arm, the Islamic Jihad Organization, or IJO.
It is claimed that his Hezbollah handler ordered him to surveil facilities belonging to the FBI and Army National Guard in New York City. He took detailed notes on security protocols at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
In interviews with the FBI after being “deactivated” from the terrorist group’s external operations wing, Kourani allegedly told the feds he was recruited because of Hezbollah’s interest in obtaining dual-citizen sleeper agents who could be activated in case of an emergency.
“Kourani believes that he was recruited to join the IJO in light of his education and residence in the United States, and in connection with efforts by the IJO to develop ‘sleepers’ who maintained ostensibly normal lives but could be activated and tasked with conducting IJO operations,” according to the complaint.
Kourani was arrested in June and his case highlights the complexities of dealing with an organization that is simultaneously the most powerful political force in Lebanon, an organized-criminal enterprise, an Iran-backed militia, a social-services provider, and a designated foreign-terrorist group.
Hezbollah has been at war with the United States longer than any other foreign terrorist organization. In the 1980s, its operatives killed more than 250 Americans in attacks on a U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon. Its operatives also attacked a U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996. (Hezbollah also carried out attacks on Jewish targets in Buenos Aires in the 1990s, killing more than 100 people.)
Kourani’s alleged involvement with Hezbollah began when he was just 16 years old. He allegedly received weapons and military training from the unit while still a teenager living in Lebanon, during a 45-day boot camp. “[H]e was permitted to attend because of his family’s connections to a high-ranking Hezbollah official,” according to the criminal complaint.
After the alleged Hezbollah training, Kourani immigrated to the U.S. in 2003, becoming a citizen in 2009. He pursued studies in biomedical engineering from the City University of New York, according to his LinkedIn profile, and earned an MBA from the for-profit Keller School for Management in 2013.
In the middle of his educational career in 2008, Kourani was recruited into Hezbollah’s external terror arm, the Islamic Jihad Organization or IJO, according to the complaint. He participated in their military training activities in 2011, and later gathered information—including on “specific security protocols; baggage-screening and collection practices; and the location of surveillance cameras, security personnel, law enforcement officers, and magnometers” at Kennedy Airport, according to his complaint.
IJO operatives with dual citizenship have been linked to a number of incidents in recent years, including a bus explosion in Bulgaria in 2012 and surveillance of Israeli tourists in Cyprus. Others have been arrested for possession of explosives.
Kourani has pleaded not guilty to all charges. According to the criminal complaint, Kourani spoke to the FBI multiple times over 2016 and 2017—including five interviews “after an attorney representing Kourani contact(ed) the FBI and explained [...] that Kourani wished to provide information to the FBI in hope of obtaining financial support and immigration benefits for certain of his relatives.”
Except the attorney apparently did not get an agreement from prosecutors that they would not use the interviews against Kourani.
“We are going to be filing a motion to suppress the statements that he made, which were involuntarily made as a result of deception by the FBI, that tricked him and his lawyer into giving up his right to remain silent,” Kourani’s current attorney, Alexei Shacht, told The Daily Beast.
Schacht did not represent Kourani during the initial FBI interviews.
He allegedly told the FBI about meeting with a handler who wore a face mask during their rendezvous, and told him “the less you know the better it is.” The handler instructed Kourani on various workarounds in case his U.S. passport was seized while traveling overseas—like having a passport card with which he could enter from Mexico or Canada. Kourani told the FBI that he was deactivated by the IJO in 2015, according to the complaint. His interviews with the Feds began just one year later, according to the complaint.
After his arrest, his cousin Ibrahim—with whom Kourani had been living—told the press that he’d been aware of an ongoing investigation.
“I say maybe they came for Ali because always they called him, they came to him, talked to him, but I didn’t know nothing about what for,” Ibrahim said. “I know he’s my cousin, but if he did something, he has to pay.”
Ibrahim’s phone no longer accepts incoming calls, and attempts to reach him were unsuccessful. Kourani’s contacts on social networks now tell The Daily Beast they barely knew him.
Prosecutors slammed Kourani with an eight-count indictment, alleging everything from providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization to obtaining citizenship “to facilitate an act of transnational terrorism.”
Kourani’s arrest came on the heels of massive law enforcement investigations into Hezbollah’s drug trafficking activities in Latin America. The DEA-led effort to stem Hezbollah’s influence was known as Project Cassandra, but ran up against the Obama administration’s plan to improve relations with Iran and slow its nuclear program.
It is Hezbollah’s very nature that makes defining it, and evaluating approaches, so difficult. It is a designated foreign terrorist organization in the United States. Israel views it as a serious security threat, and its operatives are running vast criminal networks in Latin America. But Hezbollah is also the most powerful political actor in Lebanon, and provides social services. It even holds about 10 percent of seats in the country’s parliament.
At the same time, its militias are fighting Iran’s battles in Iraq and Syria. The exact nature of the linkages between Iran and Hezbollah’s leadership is unknown, but the Shia group certainly takes Tehran’s guidance under close advisement.
“The political activity is the extracurricular,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a fellow at the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “Their goal first and foremost is to be an expeditionary arm of the Iranian regime, and their goals are military in nature.”
Not all governments agree. While the U.S. has designated Hezbollah a foreign terrorist organization, the European Union differentiates between its military and political wings.
“Hezbollah has multiple parts, and multiple interests and objectives,” Matthew Levitt, a fellow at the Washington Institute and author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, told The Daily Beast. “You can’t separate the wings from the body.”
Some members of the organization rotate through its different components, and its official statements don’t differentiate between Hezbollah’s different capabilities, Levitt said.
“I think we’ve seen breadcrumbs leading up to this moment, and there have been continuing arrests of Lebanese nationals providing support to Hezbollah,” Schanzer added.
Indeed, in addition to the Hezbollah operatives implicated in arms- and drug-smuggling operations in Latin America, the Department of Justice has prosecuted individuals for providing money, weapons, and equipment to the organization.
There are no indications that Hezbollah had immediate plans for an attack on U.S. soil. Indeed, Kourani allegedly disclosed these schemes after he was already deactivated by the IJO.
But experts worry that such sleepers could be activated in retaliation for U.S. activity that runs counter to Hezbollah’s—or Iran’s—interests.
“The Iranians are almost certainly casing targets on a regular basis here in the United States, and they have operatives,” Schanzer said. “Whether they are [the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps] or Hezbollah, I don’t see much of a difference.”