A New York federal court convicted Hezbollah operative Ali Kourani on eight counts of terrorism last Thursday. The case illustrates how Hezbollah tasks its recruits with gaining American citizenship legally, rather than relying on forged passports to help them enter the U.S.
Kourani became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2009, and only afterward began to identify and scout targets for potential terror attacks. Court documents show that Kourani’s handler would not task him operationally until Kourani received his citizenship so as not to put the naturalization process in jeopardy.
Kourani conducted physical surveillance on multiple U.S. government buildings in New York, including the FBI’s New York offices, an Army National Guard facility, an Army armory, and a U.S. Secret Service facility. Hezbollah also tasked Kourani with identifying former Israeli military personnel living in New York as potential targets for attacks to avenge the February 2008 killing of Hezbollah commander and terror mastermind, Imad Mughniyeh.
Perhaps most chillingly, Kourani was tasked with intelligence gathering on the security protocols at New York’s John F. Kennedy’s international airport. As detailed in court documents, the surveillance would have enabled Hezbollah to learn the layout of terminals, the locations of surveillance cameras and security personnel, as well as baggage screening and collection practices. Kourani also scouted targets abroad, including similar surveillance at another unnamed airport; those plots may be ongoing despite his arrest.
The Kourani case also opens a window into Hezbollah’s malign activities other than planned attacks. Court documents name numerous U.S.-based individuals and entities potentially involved in a variety of criminal activities linked to terror finance and money laundering.
Notably, Kourani was involved with a business in Dearborn, Michigan that sold used cars to Benin, in West Africa; it is possibly one of 300 such dealerships implicated in the 2011 case prosecutors brought against Ayman Joumaa and the Lebanese-Canadian Bank. The scheme laundered a reported $200 million a month for the benefit of Colombian and Mexican drug cartels. Evidence showed that Hezbollah leveraged U.S.-based used car dealerships to launder the drug revenues by exporting vehicles to West Africa. But law enforcement actions taken against the bank’s network affected only 30 businesses due to lack of interagency cooperation. The others may still be active.
The Kourani case is one of two high-profile cases against Hezbollah operatives currently under prosecution in New York. The second case, involving Samer El-Debek, is still pending. El-Debek, arrested like Kourani in 2017, is being charged with being a Hezbollah explosives expert tasked with a terror operation in Central America. These cases may be only the tip of the iceberg.
Such threats help explain why the Justice Department, when it established a Task Force to combat transnational organized crime in October 2018, designated Hezbollah as one of its five primary targets. It is time the Task Force begins rolling out indictments against Hezbollah’s terror and terror finance operations inside the U.S.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). Follow Emanuele on Twitter @eottolenghi. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.