The Bin Laden of Lebanon In the Bronx

What does the U.S. assassination of arch-terrorist Qassem Soleimani have in common with Britain’s announcement that the government has now blacklisted the entire Hezbollah organization (not only its military arm)?

What comes to mind are the inapt reactions to these headlines among many Americans.

Part of the public seems to regard Hezbollah as a wholly remote Middle East scourge, ideologically abhorrent but not relevant on this side of the ocean, where we are thankfully out of Iran/Hezbollah’s reach (they think). So Britain’s announcement is greeted with a shrug, perhaps a yawn.

And when experts say Hezbollah suffered a major blow with the death of Soleimani- the terror group’s key bankroller and most valuable ally, instead of public relief at the removal of a monster, one encounters the tsk-tsk of disapproval and dismay.

What evidence is there the arch-terrorist was planning an” imminent” attack against the United States, critics demand to know. And in the absence of any knowledge of an imminent attack, how was the government justified in killing him?

And for the clincher: Even if the government was justified, wasn’t it reckless of the Trump Administration to make the world “less safe” by taking action guaranteed to provoke retaliation by Iran?

What is astounding is the level of obliviousness to the fact that Hezbollah is not just a Lebanon-based Muslim Shiite menace in the Middle East; Hezbollah is a mushrooming white-hot danger across the Western Hemisphere, including in our own backyard.

Cutting off the head of the snake might not eliminate global terrorism, but how can anyone fancy they’d be “safer” in a world with a rabid lunatic wielding vast power; a mass murderer on a mission to slaughter the world’s infidels, with hundreds of thousands of well-trained, motivated killers under his command?

How Hezbollah Grooms Sleeper Cells

To gauge how vulnerable the United States may be, consider the recent trial and conviction of Ali Kourani, a U.S. citizen and New York resident who spied for Hezbollah, and called his family “the bin Ladens of Lebanon.”

Living in the Bronx, he told the FBI he thought of himself as a “sleeper agent” for Hezbollah. He said Hezbollah liked to “develop ‘sleepers’ who maintained ostensibly normal lives but could be activated.”

“Ali Kourani was recruited, trained, and deployed by Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad Organization to plan and execute acts of terrorism around New York City,” said Geoffrey Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, after Kourani was sentenced in December.

“After spending years conducting surveillance on the city’s critical infrastructure, federal buildings, international airports, and even daycare centers, he is now the first Islamic Jihad Organization operative to be convicted and sentenced for his crimes against the United States.”

Federal prosecutors had recommended a life sentence for Kourani, saying he was “focused on Hezbollah’s jihad, and preoccupied with martyrdom — that is, dying for Hezbollah’s terrorist cause.”

“Although the defendant now sits in jail,” wrote prosecutors, “there is no way of knowing with certainty when or how Hezbollah, Iran, and the IJO will use the intelligence the defendant collected to cause harm.”

Kourani was sentenced instead to forty years in prison.

There is also no way of knowing how many operatives and “sleeper agents” like Kourani are working for Hezbollah, ready to die for the cause.

Full-blown Jihadist

The case against Kourani provides a unique look into how one of Iran’s most formidable proxy forces operates inside and outside the U.S, wrote NBC news analysts Todd Winter and Robert Windrem.

Authorities said Kourani came to the U.S. legally in 2003, earning a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering in 2009 and a master’s degree in business administration in 2013. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in April 2009 and was issued a U.S. passport.

Prosecutors said Kourani was recruited by the terrorist group after a family residence was destroyed in 2006, during the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

According to court documents, quoted by NBC, he traveled to Lebanon in 2011, where he learned to use a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, assault rifles, a submachine gun, a machine gun and a Glock pistol.

Assistant Attorney General John Demers said Kourani, upon returning to the United States, threw himself into the cause of jihad on American shores, helping Hezbollah prepare for potential future attacks against the United States.

Demers said trial evidence showed that Kourani searched for suppliers who could provide weapons for attacks against the United States, and people who could be recruited to join Hezbollah’s ranks.

According to the sentencing memo, “He spent years helping Hezbollah and Iran prepare to strike strategic and vulnerable targets around New York City, such as federal facilities housing day care centers, critical infrastructure, counterterrorism command posts, and international airports. Other vulnerable targets include members of the NYPD, the Mossad, and the Israel Defense Forces.”

Between 2009 and 2015, Kourani told the FBI he also scouted out at least four federal buildings in New York City at the request of Hezbollah, including offices of the FBI and the Secret Service, shooting video of the buildings and their surroundings.

NBC News terrorism analyst Nicholas Rasmussen, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said he believes the Kourani case fits “very much into the modus operandi that Hezbollah employs around the world.”

“All of this in my mind is part of a very well developed Hezbollah and Iranian ‘playbook’ that sits on the shelf ready to be utilized at the time and place they deem it necessary.”

How Kourani Was Caught

Kourani’s first brush with U.S. law enforcement was not for terrorism but for counterfeiting, which Hezbollah operatives have long used to finance operations in the U.S.

On Nov. 8, 2013, the NYPD stopped Kourani because boxes of shoes were blocking his vehicle’s rear windows. Officers found 190 pairs of counterfeit Uggs boots in his car and charged him with traffic offenses and possession of counterfeit goods.

In 2015, Kourani returned to Lebanon and received more military training, according to prosecutors.

When he returned to the U.S., he was detained at JFK Airport. When federal agents discovered his phone was missing his memory card, they searched his possessions and found it hidden under a travel sticker on the back of Kourani’s passport. The phone and card were confiscated.

By April 2016, the FBI had made contact with Kourani. He initially cooperated, telling the bureau of his life as a sleeper agent. When he stopped cooperating two years later, the government indicted him.

According to the sentencing memo, “The defendant spent almost 15 years lurking in the shadows as a terrorist supporting Hezbollah’s objectives of targeting Americans and Israelis around the world. While purporting to be a student and businessman in New York City, he collected attack-planning information for the IJO and waited patiently for orders to attack.”

The memo also noted Kourani’s preoccupation on his laptop with the concept of ‘martyrdom’ … indications that he wanted very much to participate in such an attack.”

Escaping Federal Scrutiny

The Kourani case illustrates a new strategy adopted by Hezbollah, noted Emanuele Ottolenghi of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).

Hezbollah’s new modus operandi is directing their recruits to gain American citizenship legally, rather than relying on forged passports to help them enter the U.S. Legal citizenship is sought as a means of shielding an operative from federal scrutiny.

Kourani became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2009, and only afterward began to scout out targets for potential terror attacks, noted Ottolenghi.

“Court documents show that Kourani’s handler avoided sending him on terror-related missions until his citizenship was finalized, so as not to jeopardize the naturalization process,” writes Ottolenghi.

After he acquired U.S. citizenship, Hezbollah sent Kourani to identify 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 ominously, Kourani was assigned to gather intelligence on the security protocols at New York’s Kennedy 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.

Prosecutors also revealed the group’s drive to accumulate bomb-making materials from China and stockpile them in weapons caches across the globe.

As precise details trickle out from the Kourani trial about how Hezbollah is patiently laying the groundwork for terror attacks on these shores and abroad, one can’t help but wonder: Is any of this attack-planning “imminent” enough for the critics?

Or do they need to have an aspiring bin Laden first carry out the unthinkable -?

Perhaps it would help to refresh public memory about the acts of horror perpetrated by the Iranian and Hezbollah jihadist in the last 25 years.

Saga of Horror

Hezbollah’s saga of horror began in 1983, with two separate bombings in Lebanon; one at a Marine barracks that killed 241 American servicemen, and the other at the U.S. embassy in Lebanon that killed 29 people.

Hezbollah also took credit for a truck bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina in 1992. This atrocity was surpassed by the car-bombing of the Buenos Aries Jewish Center [AMIA] in 1994, that took the lives of 85 people and wounded over 300.

Hezbollah fought a war with Israel in 2006 after raining a huge barrage of rockets on Israeli civilians. Israel was driven out of southern Lebanon and suffered many losses in that war, thanks to the advanced weaponry Hezbollah received from Iran.

In 2012, Hizballah bombed a bus in Bulgaria, killing five Israeli tourists and one Bulgarian citizen.

From attacks against US diplomatic facilities in Iraq, to planning terror in Kenya and Nigeria – from plots against its Gulf neighbors, to planning bombings and assassinations in Europe–Hezballah and its Iranian patron share a single agenda: global terrorism.

The organization has operatives, financiers, front companies, and other assets in Lebanon, in the Gulf, in Africa, in Asia, in Europe, and here in the Western Hemisphere, including the Unites States. Its weapons caches have been discovered in the Gulf, in Europe, in Asia, and in Africa.

No place is safe from Iran’s malevolent reach, including the United States.

The Bombing of the Buenos Aries Jewish Center

Thousands of Argentinians held a commemorative rally this week in honor of Alberto Nisman, the Jewish prosecutor who led the investigation into the 1994 terrorist attack against AMIA [Argentine Israelite Mutual Association], Argentina’s largest Jewish organization.

The attack demolished the six-story Jewish Center, hurling corpses, mangled bodies and screaming victims in all directions. Rescuers spent weeks searching the rubble for bodies and survivors.

In the years that passed, no one was ever brought to trial for the atrocity. Although American officials believed that the Iranian regime and Hezbollah, which often act together, were the main culprits, it wasn’t until Nisman took over the Argentine investigation that solid evidence was compiled.

Just hours before he was about to publicly blow the lid off the case before an Argentine congressional committee in Jan. 2015, Nisman was found dead in his apartment.

The government initially ruled his death a “likely” suicide, but an Argentine federal appeals court later found that the prosecutor had been beaten and murdered by an unknown intruder.

The precise cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head, delivered at close range from a handgun found at his side. A botched police investigation into the death ensured that it would remain unsolved to this day.

Many people had wanted Nisman dead, after he had uncovered significant evidence over an 11-year investigation that Iran and Hezbollah had orchestrated the car bombing that demolished the AMIA center.

Nisman had produced a written indictment, charging seven Iranian officials, including the former President, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. He also indicted Hezbollah’s senior military commander, Imad Mugniyah (assassinated in Syria in 2008).

“The decision to carry out the attack was made not by a small splinter group of extremist Islamic officials,” Nisman wrote, but was “extensively discussed and ultimately adopted by a consensus of the highest representatives of the Iranian government.”

The Masterminds

Drawing on the testimony of Iranian defectors, writes New Yorker, Nisman charged that the decision to attack AMIA was made on August 14, 1993, at a meeting of the Committee for Special Operations, which included the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.

The coordinator of the AMIA operation inside the country, said Nisman, was an Iranian named Mohsen Rabbani, who was responsible for financing the attack and assembling the bomb.

Nisman tracked the movements and telephone conversations of Rabbani and others in the days and hours leading up to the attack, which showed intense traffic as they plotted together and touched base regularly with the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires.

[Nearly all of these operatives left Argentina before the bombing, with Iranian ambassadors to Argentina swiftly following suit. The only exception was Rabbani who, as cultural attaché at the Iranian embassy, enjoyed diplomatic immunity. He remained in Argentina proclaiming his innocence and was remarkably never taken into custody.]

Nisman also directly accused then- president Cristina Kirchner (now vice-president) and some of her top aides of colluding to cover-up Iran’s role in masterminding the car-bombing, in exchange for a lucrative trade agreement.

Before his scheduled appointment with the Argentine congress, Nisman hand-delivered a 289–page report to a federal judge and made a sixty-page summary available to the media. The report accused Kirchner and a top aide named Timmerman of “being authors and accomplices of an aggravated cover-up and obstruction of justice regarding the Iranians accused of the AMIA terrorist attack.”

Nisman’s brief avoided indicting Kirchner but called forcefully for further investigation.

A day later, the Jewish prosecutor was dead.

With his death, the investigation into the AIMA attack became sidelined by the Kirschner government, bogged down in political interference and high-level corruption.

A Cry for Justice

Last week’s commemorative rally in Buenos Aires for the slain Alberto Nisman drew some 3,000 demonstrators, who shouted “murderer” every time Kirchner’s name was mentioned and called for the Argentine government to administer justice.

The rally was held under the motto: “Justice You Shall Pursue: It was not suicide, it was an assassination.”

Nisman’s mother, Sara Garfunkel, spoke to the crowd, as did politicians from the party in opposition to the current government.

Other rallies were held around the country and abroad, near Argentine embassies and consulates, reported JTA. In all of them, protesters asserted that Nisman was murdered and blamed the Kirchner government for his death.

The Jewish political umbrella DAIA organized a separate ceremony of remembrance at the Jewish cemetery where Nisman’s body is buried. His widow and two daughters were scheduled to participate in the religious ceremony.

The rally coincided with Britain’s announcement just a day before that it had added the political arm of the Hezbollah organization to its terror blacklist, subjecting the group to asset-freezing, and criminalizing any act of assistance to the organization.

For years, Britain, like the European Union, had blacklisted Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization while failing to include the group’s political arm in the same designation.

Only when the Hezbollah itself publicly denied a distinction between its branches, seeming to mock the naiveté of anyone presuming otherwise, did Britain amend its own flawed legislation.

***

‘We Have Not Forgotten and We Never Will’

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed Britain’s announcement and urged all countries to follow London’s example.

“On this five-year anniversary of prosecutor Alberto Nisman’s death, we remember the 1994 AMIA attack in Buenos Aires and Nisman’s tireless efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice,” Pompeo wrote in a message to Argentina leaders. “We call on all nations to designate Hezbollah as the terrorist organization it is.”

This past July, on a visit to Argentina to commemorate 25th anniversary of the terrorist bombing of AIMA, Pompeo lit a candle at the site of the devastated Argentine Israelite Mutual Association.

He was joined by many ministers from Latin American nations who gathered in Buenos Aires for talks on counter-terrorism.

“The victims [of the AMIA attack] were killed by members of a terrorist group, Hezbollah, and had help that day from Iran,” Pompeo told a remembrance ceremony, noting that Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards provided “logistical support and funding.”

“We have not forgotten, and we never will,” Pompeo said at the AMIA, where a plaque listed the names of the 85 victims.

Pompeo stressed that the United States has joined with President Macri and the Argentine government in seeking justice for the victims of the AMIA attack and their families.

He cited a new State Department incentive in the form of a $7 million reward for anyone providing information that leads to the arrest of the Hezbollah terrorists who orchestrated the 1994 attack on the Jewish Center.

The guidelines single out Salman al-Reda, whom the State Department charges with masterminding the car-bombing, and who “has directed terrorist operations in the Western Hemisphere for Hezbollah ever since.”

The guidelines also identify Ahmad Vahidi, former IRGC-Qods Force commander and defense minister; Mohsen Rezai, former commander of the IRGC; Mohsen Rabbani and Ali Fallahian, former Minister of Intelligence.

The Treasury designation has frozen any assets Salman and the other terrorists may have in the United States and has criminalized any assistance to these individuals.

***

Remembering Alberto Nisman

U.S. State Department Undersecretary Nathan Sales also addressed the 2019 counter-terrorism conference, paying tribute to the memory of Alberto Nisman and his “heroic efforts to investigate the AMIA bombing. “

“In 2004, Nisman took over an investigation that had been plagued by mismanagement and corruption,” Sales told the gathering. “He pursued the case doggedly and tenaciously over the next 11 years, in an effort to get to the bottom of this deadly attack.

“Nisman faced obstacles at every turn – he received death threats against himself and his children. He was undaunted in his pursuit of the truth up to the very day he was murdered in 2015. We continue to stress the importance of resolving the circumstances of his tragic death and bringing to justice the perpetrators of the AMIA bombing he so diligently investigated.

“We know without a doubt that the leaders in Tehran endorsed the attack,” undersecretary Sales said. “The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, provided funding and logistical support. And Hezbollah, long the IRGC’s most capable proxy, carried out the operation.”

Hezbollah plots in Argentina in the 1990s are not merely “a historical matter,” he noted, as the terror group continues to operate in the Western Hemisphere.

“It’s been a quarter century since the AMIA bombing, yet the threats from Iran, the IRGC, and Hezbollah remain undiminished.”

Sales said the regime in Tehran continues to provide hundreds of millions of dollars every year to terrorists across the world, and that it has provided Hezbollah alone with $700 million a year.

It does this despite ongoing economic turmoil in Iran that is impoverishing many of its people, because “its priorities are not its people but expanding global terror.”

How the Trump Administration is Marginalizing Terror Groups

“Let me tell you what the [Trump] Administration is doing to crack down on Hezbollah and other Iran-backed terrorists – both around the globe and here in our hemisphere,” State Department undersecretary Nathan Sales told participants at the July 2019 counter-terrorism conference in Buenos Aries, on the 25th anniversary of the AMIA attack.

“Under the leadership of President Trump, we’ve intensified our counterterrorism efforts against Iran, the IRGC, and Hezbollah worldwide. Most notably, in April, Secretary Pompeo took the unprecedented step of designating the IRGC, including its elite “Qods” Force, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, or FTO,” Sales said.

“This is a formal acknowledgement by the U.S. government that IRGC doesn’t just finance and promote terrorism. It actively engages in terrorist activity as a tool of statecraft,” the State Department undersecretary stressed.

To counter Hezbollah, he said, the United States is targeting its financial resources and squeezing it out of the international financial system. “We’re hitting its wallet and will deny it the funds it needs to commit terrorism around the world.”

The Trump Administration has designated over 150 entities and individuals tied to Hezbollah, including more than 50 since last year, and has frozen the assets of all these groups.

“This Administration is using every tool at our disposal to dismantle the global financing network, including its participation in drug trafficking and other crimes,” Sales told the conference. “U.S. sanctions are starving Iran, the IRGC, and Hezbollah of the money they need to promote terrorism worldwide.”

“The good news,” he said, “is that Hezbollah is feeling the pinch. As our sanctions on the Iranian regime have taken hold, Hezbollah has had to tighten its belt…and beg for donations. We will continue to increase the financial pressure and impose costs on the Iranian regime and its terrorist proxies until they abandon their malign behavior.”

One of the lessons from the Argentina bombings a quarter century ago is that no country is safe from terrorism, Sales noted. “And so we all have a stake in ridding the world of this scourge.”