Washington – The US Justice Department announced on Thursday that it has charged two “Hezbollah”-linked suspects with plotting to carry out terrorist attacks in New York City and Panama.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, in cooperation with New York and Detroit police detained Ali Kourani, 32, and Samer al-Debek, 37, on June 1. Kourani was arrested in his New York residence, while al-Debek was detained in Michigan state.
Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Joon Kim said the men tried to provide support to “Hezbollah’s” Islamic Jihad organization after receiving military training from the group.
They were recruited as “Hezbollah” members and received military training on the use of rocket launchers, hand grenades and machine artillery to use them on their terrorist mission.
Al-Debek was tasked to look for potential targets in Panama, including US and Israeli embassies, and tried to learn how close someone could get to ships passing through the Panama Canal and whether there was weakness in its construction. Kourani meanwhile surveilled American targets, including military and law enforcement facilities in New York City.
They will now stand trial in New York, added Kim.
New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill said Kourani and others conducted covert surveillance of potential targets, including US military bases and Israeli military personnel in New York City.
“Pre-operational surveillance is one of the hallmarks of ‘Hezbollah’ in planning for future attacks,” he said.
O’Neill noted that Kourani, who was born in Lebanon, received sophisticated military training overseas on at least two occasions, including in the use of a rocket propelled grenade. He said al-Debek also was charged with possessing extensive bomb-making training from “Hezbollah”.
William Sweeney Jr., head of the New York FBI office, said the charges “reveal once again that the New York City region remains a focus of many adversaries, demonstrated as alleged in this instance by followers of a sophisticated and determined organization with a long history of coordinating violent activities on behalf of ‘Hezbollah’.”
The Justice Department said that Kourani became an American citizen in 2009 after lying that he was not a member of any terrorist group. It was later revealed that he had joined “Hezbollah” in 2000.
Authorities said Kourani attended “Hezbollah”-sponsored weapons training in Lebanon in 2000 when he was 16. They said he lawfully entered the US in 2003, obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree in biomedical engineering in 2009 and a master’s in business administration in 2013.
Al-Debek is believed to have joined the group in 2007. He received military training between 2008 and 2014. He told the FBI that he was arrested by “Hezbollah” between December 2015 and April 2016 after being falsely accused of spying for the US.
Authorities said that from late 2014 until February, al-Debek conducted over 250 Facebook searches with words including “martyrs of the holy defense,” ”martyrs of Islamic resistance” and “martyrs of the Islamic resistance in Lebanon.”
Kourani and al-Debek face 20 to 25 years in prison if convicted.