A Cedar Rapids family is under arrest after authorities found them covertly shipping at least 152 handguns to Lebanon—under the guise of food and clothing aid for the Syrian crisis. In an unlikely twist, they were turned in by their gun dealer—after the three men and one woman cleared out his entire 5.7 mm ammunition cache not once, but twice.
At a hearing Tuesday afternoon, Judge Linda Reade ordered them held in detention until another court appearance Friday. Assistant U.S. Attorney Rich Murphy called them “an immense risk to public safety.”
At the center of this drama is 50-year-old Ali Herz, a Lebanon-born naturalized citizen, his son Adam Ben Ali Al Herz, and 29-year-old brother Bassem Herz. The sole woman indicted is Bassem Herz’s wife, Sarah Majid Zeaiter, a Lebanese national who is a permanent resident of the United States.
They were ratted out by a gun store owner in Eastern Iowa who grew suspicious after he saw Ali Herz check out a foreign language text message on his phone during one round of shopping.
By that point, he’d sold the family well upwards of 3,000 rounds of ammunition, as well as multiple guns. He’s also seen them buying other weapons at a gun show.
But according to an official complaint against the family, the store owner finally suspected something fishy with the foreign-language text. He thought it “advised Ali Herz as to what accessories to purchase.”
After consulting with his phone, Ali Herz bought 20 collapsible butt stocks for rifles, which help a shooter support and aim the weapon.
During the investigation, federal officials found weapons shipments to Lebanon from the Herz family’s name, sometimes masquerading as aid for refugees.
The Facebook page for Ali Herz appears to provide some clues about his time spent in and political allegiances within Lebanon. In one image, Ali Herz is shown with a missile launcher. Another shows the flag for Lebanon’s Shia Amal Movement.
Another photo from his page, apparently uploaded from Lebanon in 2011, shows an infant with an Amal movement headband. His Facebook likes are much more international: They include Ammar al-Hakim, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and various Amal Movement leaders.
The Amal Movement was one of Lebanon’s largest Shia militias during the country’s civil war, but has since reformed into a political party. An Amal leader serves as speaker of Lebanon’s parliament—in which it has more seats than any other Shia party. It is considered more secular than Hezbollah, which was founded by defectors from the Amal Movement. The two parties now have a tenuous alliance in domestic politics. Both groups, however, are believed to be aiding the Shia Assad regime in Syria.
But gathering arms is “a very un-Amal thing to do,” says UCLA professor James Gelvin. “Amal is a has-been.”
Within the Lebanese-Shia community, Amal has been overshadowed by Hezbollah, a group founded by Amal defectors. Although it has more seats in parliament than any other Shia party—and an Amal politician, Nabih Berri, is the speaker—it’s not the star opposition movement. Hezbollah, on the other hand, appeals to various sectors of society, in part because of the social services it provides.
According to Gelvin, if the weapons are in fact going to Amal, it may be one of several things: either Amal, like many other sectors of society, is participating in a sort of defensive-arming in response to spillover from the conflict in Syria, or maybe the arms are going to some sort of intra-Amal conflict.
Gelvin says Amal is not an active participant in any fighting within Syria, so if the weapons are going to the group, they are unlikely to be crossing the Syrian border.
Within the organization, Gelvin says, “there is a very strong pro-Hezbollah section”—creating potential conflict with those who want to differentiate themselves from the terrorist group.
The Herz men have all made multiple trips to Lebanon, with Bassem Herz’s most recent one being in March 2015.
That same month, Homeland Security officials found a Herz Enterprises freight container bound for Beirut, shipped by Adam Herz. Upon inspection, officials found 53 firearms and more than 6,800 rounds of ammunition—all “hidden within three ‘Bobcat’ skid loaders.” Most of the guns had been wrapped in plastic bags.
The shipment also contained boxes labelled “Midamar” with clothing, shoes, and supplies that appeared to be headed for Syria. The Midamar corporation had previously advertised a clothing drive for Syrian refugees stranded in Lebanon, according to an internet posting.
Mike Lahammer, an attorney for Midamar, says the company didn’t know anything about the weapons in the shipment. “What happens is that Midamar, in addition to their meat exporting business with halal meat, also contracts with different companies to ship things out,” he said—including with the Herz Corporation. “As part of that, they agreed to take clothes that Midamar had collected” and ship them to Lebanon.
Lahammer did not provide the name of the Lebanese charity the clothes were intended for.
“The first that Midamar found out about that was this morning, when homeland security came to their facility this morning with a search warrant [for documents about the Herz deal],” Lahammer says. Midamar cooperated fully.
This wasn’t the first time Midamar did business with the Herz clan. They had used its shipping facilities on three or four previous occasions, and the families were friends.
“They knew each other,” Lahammer said. “They were friends, like the [Midamar owners] Aosseys are friends with other families in Cedar Rapids and around the world.”
Midamar was raided by authorities Tuesday morning—as was Pizza Daddy, a fast food joint operated by a company headed by the Herz family.
A third container linked to the Herz family was searched on May 8th. It purported to be shipping “two ‘Bobcat Skidloaders,’ household goods, and miscellaneous equipment to Beirut, Lebanon.” A search discovered 99 firearms and 9,500 rounds of ammunition, with the firearms once more hidden in the Bobcats.
A first shipment arrived in Lebanon between August and September of 2014—before authorities had been alerted to the family’s gun-friendly shopping habits.
All four members of the Herz family are believed to have purchased weapons sent abroad. The complaint acknowledges that the Herzes did not have criminal records prohibiting them from obtaining such weapons—but they were also not permitted to sell them, or to export them.
The weapons that the family is known to have purchased—that is, those from official dealers whose records have been obtained by the feds—are valued at over $100,000. Officials don’t exclude the possibility that the family purchased more guns from private sellers.
Mike Gerot, who runs Ammo Bearer in Iowa City, told the Daily Beast that the family had set of his alarm bells beginning in 2014. Though he is not the gun shop owner cited in the criminal complaint, Gerot alerted local officials who said they would pass his concerns on to Cedar Rapids authorities. He kept selling them guns, though, because "they didn't tell me not to sell to them."
Gerot was alarmed that the Herz family bought four weapons for roughly $4000 on their first visit—and paid for them in $100 bills. "Ninety percent of my business is done on credit cards," he says, adding that they purchased some impractical weapons he thinks are mostly used as status symbols.
On Facebook, Bassem and Adam Herz were a members of “Iowa guns and ammo buy sale and trade,” a group for firearms enthusiasts. By Tuesday afternoon, they were no longer listed as group members.
A post by a group administrator indicated that they had been removed and blocked from the group, after another member complained about their presence.
The Linn County Sheriff’s office, which participated in the investigation, directed all inquiries to the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office said that he has “no knowledge” of whether affiliates of the Midamar Corporation will also be charged in this case. The spokesman, Steve Young, also said that he did not have any information about which individuals or groups in Lebanon were ultimately receiving the weapons.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated.