For more than a decade, Hezbollah and therefore Iran have maintained “sleeper agents” in America who await only a coded signal to commit mass murder and wreak maximum chaos.
“There would be certain scenarios that would require action or conduct by those who belonged to the cell,” one of three sleeper agents arrested by the FBI since 2017 is quoted saying in court papers.
The sleeper agent, Ali Kourani, told the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force that he would have expected to be activated if Iran and the United States went to war.
“The unit is Iranian controlled,” Kourani said.
Other precipitating events would include major U.S. military action against Hezbollah or its Iranian overseers.
“In those scenarios the sleeper cell would also be triggered into action,” Kourani said.
That would certainly seem to include an airstrike killing Iran’s most prominent military figure, General Qassem Soleimani.
In the aftermath of that startling action, a senior U.S. intelligence official said that if the Iranians remain rational they will refrain from mounting an attack on the American homeland for fear of sparking a war they cannot possibly win. He noted in the next breath that emotions are no doubt running high in Tehran.
“If you remove the rational thinking…” he said.
The official figured that Kourani and a second sleeper agent named Samer El Debek had almost certainly been replaced after they were arrested on the same day in different cities in 2017. The third, Alexei Saab, who was arrested in July of 2019, had already been in place for years but was unaware of the other two.
“There could be sleeper cells all over the place,” the official said.
And they are presumably under orders, just as Kourani was in the Bronx, El Debek was in Dearborn, Michigan, and Saab was in Morristown, New Jersey. The three were instructed to be as innocuous as the spam email they would receive carrying a one-word coded command from Hezbollah and its ally or front, the Islamic Jihad Organization or IJO.
“These sleepers were tasked to maintain ostensibly normal lives,” the FBI says in court papers. “But could be activated and tasked with conducting IJO operations.”
Kourani was sentenced last month to 40 years in prison for providing material support to a terrorist organization.
“As a sophisticated, well-trained IJO operative positioned under deep cover in the United States, the defendant was part of an emerging threat posed by the IJO in the Americas region, about which little was known publicly before the FBI arrested the defendant and El Debek on the same day in 2017,” prosecutors said in the sentencing memorandum, referring to Hezbollah's Islamic Jihad Organization.
Another section of the memorandum has taken on particular significance in the aftermath of the Soleimani hit:
“The IJO’s operations in the United States are a part of Iran’s proxy network, and Iran has backed this threat by funding Hizballah in annual amounts ranging between $200 million and $800 million per year... Iran’s support of Hizballah results in the ‘more severe’ risks attendant to ‘state sponsored terrorism,’ as described at the trial, which in this context leads to increased focus on targeting nodes of critical infrastructure in attacks intended to cripple cities.”
The memorandum notes that the targets Kourani surveilled included two federal facilities with child-care centers.
“He has expressed no remorse to date, and argues repeatedly that he ‘harmed no one,’” prosecutors note. “It is safe to say that the parents of small children who spend their days at targets surveilled by the defendant on behalf of the IJO disagree.”
El Debek, who has pleaded guilty and appears to be cooperating, is said in court papers to have admitted conducting surveillance at numerous possible targets. That included one outside the U.S., the Panama Canal.
“El Debek said 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,” the FBI says. “In doing so, he stated, he took a lot of photographs of the Canal, which he later provided to the IJO.”
But there were also numerous targets in New York, including a federal building that has a “large daycare facility” with “exterior . . . playgrounds.” The FBI notes that at one point, “The defendant, updated his Facebook status with a post in Arabic, which translated reads: ‘Do not make peace or share food with those who killed your people. Irrigate the land with blood and quench the thirst of your forefathers until their bones [their remains] talk with you.’”
Saab pleaded not guilty after his arrest this summer, but is said in court papers to have told the FBI about his intelligence gathering efforts at numerous possible targets, these in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and other cities.
“Saab focused on structural weaknesses of the locations he surveilled to determine how a future attack could cause the most destruction-i.e., he sought to learn how to maximize damage if the IJO later bombed a location,” court papers say. “Among other information, SAAB focused on the materials used to construct a particular target, how close in proximity one could get to a target, and site weaknesses or ‘soft spots’ that the IJO could exploit if it attacked a location in the future.”
The papers add, “Saab understood that the information he provided to the IJO would be used to calculate the size of a bomb needed to target a particular structure and the ideal location in which to place explosive devices to maximize damage. For example, SAAB provided information on how to target bridges to best allow the IJO to ‘disable’ them and to prevent them from being used. To that end, SAAB looked for weak points in the bridge's structure and the photographs he took would focus on structural details such as the main joints, the towers, and the cables.”
The papers further report that in 2004, Saab was summoned to Lebanon and taken to a safe house to meet with a handler.
“There, [the handler] told Saab to prepare a detailed guide to New York City. Over the course of the following two days, Saab wrote an approximately seven to 10 page report (the "Report’) on New York City. The first page of the Report was a hand-drawn map with specific locations annotated by number. The second page of the Report had a legend, which indicated how the numbers corresponded to locations. The rest of the Report had a detailed summary of each location.”
Among the locations in the Report were: “Federal, state, and local government buildings, including 26 Federal Plaza...United Nations headquarters...The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island...Rockefeller Center...Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange..Times Square...The Empire State Building..Herald Square and Macy's in Midtown...Local airports, including John F. Kennedy International Airport, LaGuardia Airport, and Newark Liberty International Airport...Local tunnels and bridges, including the Lincoln Tunnel, Holland Tunnel, Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, Brooklyn Bridge, George Washington Bridge, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Throgs Neck Bridge, and Goethals Bridge.”
The papers further note, “Saab included in the Report such details as directions to the local airports, the number of terminals at the local airports, and which terminals were for international or domestic travel.”
The FBI adds that Saab’s training in explosives ranged from a “viable victim-actuated device, designed to detonate when the briefcase was lifted off the surface by a potential victim” to “a viable improvised mortar device, meaning it is command initiated and able to detonate on a time delay.”
Some on-the-job assassination training in Lebanon began when an instructor told him to steal a particular Mercedes.
“Saab was given a key that appeared to be a universal key capable of accessing multiple cars, and then proceeded to steal the Mercedes.”
The instructor drove off in the Mercedes and later returned to pick up Saab. The instructor told Saab to reach under the passenger seat.
“Saab removed a plastic bag containing a silver firearm with an attached silencer. Saab and [the instructor] then drove approximately 10 minutes to a field outside of Beirut. A small white van was parked in the field...[The instructor] then instructed Saab to walk up to the passenger's side of the Van and shoot the person inside ‘twice in the belly’ and ‘once in the head’...Saab pointed his firearm at the van's driver. The Driver cried out twice, in sum and substance, that it ‘wasn’t him’ and raised his hands in front of his face. Saab then pulled the trigger twice, but the gun did not fire. [The instructor] waved Saab to get back into the Mercedes, and they fled the scene. Saab later came to believe that the Driver was a suspected Israeli spy.”
Saab was also trained in the best way to take photos of targets back in America without raising suspicion.
“For photographs, Saab learned to position an unrelated subject as the focus point of the picture, with the true object of surveillance in the background,” court papers say. “Saab would also often pose people in front of the intended objects of his surveillance, to provide perspective and shield his true purpose from law enforcement.”
Saab is scheduled to go on trial in Manhattan federal court in February 2021. El Debek is expected to be among the witnesses against him. El Debek will likely testify about his own Hezbollah assignments, which included flying to Bangkok under an extreme cover.
“The handler told El Debek to say he was looking for sex in Thailand,” the court papers say.
Debek did hire a sex worker, but he used her solely to go ahead of him into a house so he could see if it was under surveillance. He then retrieved a stash of ammonium nitrate, a prime ingredient for explosives that another operative had abandoned. The stuff was in first-aid ice packs produced by a company in Guangzhou, China, that Kourani had once been dispatched to visit.
El Debek will also likely testify about his own explosives training, which included manufacturing a bomb similar to the device one of his cousins used to kill seven aboard an Israeli tour bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, in 2012.
That was one of several attacks the IJO staged in retaliation for the killing of its leader and founder, Imad Mughniyeh, in a February 2008 joint American and Israeli operation in Syria. An earlier attack on Mughniyeh had been called off by the Americans because he was with Soleimani.
Now that we have gone ahead and also killed Soleimani, the question is whether IJO will activate the sleeper agents it almost certainly still has out there in the homeland.
“They didn’t get out of the targeting business,” the senior intelligence official told The Daily Beast.
IJO already has that New York Guide Book, complete with an annotated hand drawn map identifying what Saab says it termed the “hot spots” to hit.