The Justice Department on Thursday announced the arrest of two naturalized U.S. citizens who worked as spies for Hezbollah, the Islamist terrorist group based in Lebanon.
One of the men, Samer el Debek, was allegedly trained as a bomb maker for Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO), Hezbollah’s international terrorism and counter-surveillance component.
El Debek, 37, was arrested last week near his home in Dearborn, Mich. Ali Kourani, 32, was also arrested last week in the Bronx, where he resides.
Both face charges of providing material support to Hezbollah, which the U.S. designated a terrorist group in 1997 for its attacks against Israelis.
The Justice Department alleges that el Debek and Kourani worked as spies for IJO, both in the U.S. and abroad.
According to the Justice Department’s unsealed indictment, el Debek was first recruited by Hezbollah in 2007 or 2008. He was paid a salary by the terrorist group through 2015.
He received training in firearms, explosives and surveillance during several trips to Lebanon between 2008 and 2014, the complaint states.
El Debek “has a high degree of technical sophistication” in the area of bomb making,” the complaint states.
“FBI bomb technicians have assessed that el Debek received extensive training as a bomb-maker.”
The complaint also states that el Debek was training in bomb making techniques which are similar to those used in a bomb used by Hezbollah in a bus bombing in Bulgaria in 2012.
That bombing killed seven people, including the suspect, Mohamad Hassan El-Husseini. El Debek told the FBI that he is related to El-Husseini, who held citizenship in France.
El Debek also appears to have done troubleshooting work for IJO in several countries.
The complaint says that el Debek went to Thailand in May 2009 on a mission to “clean up explosive precursors in a house in Bangkok that others had left because they were under surveillance.” He also cased out the Panama Canal and the U.S. and Israeli embassies in the Central American nation during a visit in 2011.
While in Panama, el Debek was also tasked with scouting out hardware stores where bomb making materials could be purchased.
El Debek was dispatched to Panama again in early 2012 to “identify areas of weakness and construction at the Panama Canal, as well as provide information about how close someone could get to a ship passing through the Canal.”
After returning to the U.S. from Panama, el Debek’s Hezbollah handlers asked him for photographs of the U.S. embassy and details about security procedures at the facility.
According to the federal complaint, el Debek claimed to the FBI that he was detained by Hezbollah for several months in late 2015 and early 2016 on false allegations that he was working as a spy for the U.S.
Kourani also worked as a spy for IJO.
The complaint states the he received weapons training in Lebanon in 2000, when he was 16 years old. He legally entered the U.S. in 2003 and obtained a bachelor’s degree in 2009.
Kourani joined IJO in 2008 and in August of that year he submitted an application for naturalization. He became a U.S. citizen in 2009.
That May, Kourani traveled to China where he hooked up with an IJO handler. Through encrypted email channels, the handler doled out various tasks to Kourani, mostly for domestic spy work.
Kourani was tasked by his handlers to scout out weapons suppliers in the U.S. in order to provide firearms for IJO. He was also charged with identifying members of Israel’s military unit, the Israeli Defense Forces.
Kourani was also asked to gather information about security at U.S. airports and to conduct surveillance on U.S. military and law enforcement facilities in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The complaint says that he provided some of the intelligence he gathered to his IJO handlers in Lebanon.
The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force conducted the investigation with the help of the New York Police Department.