July 14, 2017 | Policy Brief

Hezbollah Threat to the U.S. Homeland Resurfaces

July 14, 2017 | Policy Brief

Hezbollah Threat to the U.S. Homeland Resurfaces

In an explosive filing by the Department of Justice, two suspected Hezbollah operatives were arrested and charged with material support for the organization on June 8. Their arrests highlight both the seriousness of the Hezbollah threat here at home as well as the need for more aggressive efforts to disrupt the illicit financial networks that Hezbollah has established throughout the Western Hemisphere. 

Ali Kourani and Samer el Debek are charged with allegedly engaging in activities on behalf of Hezbollah, which has been designated as a terrorist organization since 1997 by the U.S. Department of State. Kourani is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Lebanon and lives in the Bronx. El Debek is also a naturalized U.S. citizen, originally from Lebanon, who was living in Livonia, Michigan. The FBI filed criminal complaints for Kourani and el Debek after extensive interviews with both suspects in which they thoroughly described their Hezbollah handlers and their missions to perform surveillance on U.S. military and government buildings along with foreign embassies and airports. 

Both individuals had received direct training from Hezbollah in Lebanon, which taught them weapons handling and surveillance techniques. El Debek also received extensive training in explosives and explosive devices. In addition to activities within the United States, el Debek traveled to Panama, Thailand, and Malaysia on behalf of Hezbollah to collect information on potential targets, including ships traveling through the Panama Canal.

Kourani is accused of providing Hezbollah with surveillance of airports, U.S. military and law enforcement facilities, and profiles on Israeli Defense Forces members that visit or were assigned to posts in the U.S.

The arrests of these two individuals underscores that Hezbollah retains the ability and motivation to target the U.S. homeland. Policy makers need to understand that Hezbollah operatives maintain the ability to enter the U.S. and mask their behavior from law enforcement and customs agents. Hezbollah has built extensive networks throughout the Western Hemisphere, which it can leverage both to generate revenue and execute attacks in and around the United States.

This is not a new phenomenon. Hezbollah has reportedly operated in major U.S. cities for decades. The recruitment of members with access to Western passports has allowed Hezbollah ease of travel to support their illicit financing networks. In addition to profiting from the transnational drug trade and the export of used American cars to West Africa, Hezbollah has also used a vast charity network to finance their global operations.

In 2007, the Goodwill Charitable Organization in Dearborn, Michigan was designated by the U.S. Treasury Department as a Hezbollah front that served as a fundraising apparatus for the Martyrs Foundation, which Treasury describes as “an Iranian parastatal organization that channels financial support from Iran to several terrorist organizations in the Levant, including Hizballah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).” Dearborn, Michigan and Livonia, Michigan – where el Debek lived – are only 20 miles apart, which suggests Hezbollah may still have strong ties to individuals in the area.

Hezbollah has used the U.S. as a conduit for raising funds in the past. The Lebanese Canadian Bank was used by Hezbollah to launder drug proceeds, which were then used to purchase used cars through the formal U.S. financial system, which were then sold in Africa. The proceeds where then sent back to Hezbollah in Lebanon through exchange houses that masked the transactions.

The June arrest of Hezbollah operatives in New York and Michigan underscores the need for continued vigilance here in the United States and for increasing efforts to restrict their networks of illicit finance throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Tyler Stapleton is deputy director for congressional relations at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.