US arrests, charges naturalized Hezbollah ‘operatives’

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Two naturalized Americans from New York and Michigan have been charged with terrorism, accused of operating on behalf of Hezbollah in the United States, Panama and Thailand, US officials announced Thursday.

Ali Kourani, 32, and Samer el Debek, 37, were arrested on June 1 in the Bronx and just outside Detroit, respectively, US officials said. They appeared before US magistrates separately.

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Both were hit with a raft of charges that include providing material support to Hezbollah weapons offenses and receiving military-type training from group. If convicted they could spend decades in a US prison.

Debek, on Hezbollah’s payroll for years, conducted surveillance in Panama, where he scoped out the US and Israeli embassies and assessed vulnerabilities of the Panama Canal and ships passing through it, US officials said.

Kourani allegedly monitored potential targets in the United States, including military bases in New York, acting Manhattan US Attorney Joon Kim said.

Teenager in Lebanon

US officials said Kourani received weapons training from Hezbollah as a teenager in Lebanon before moving to the United States legally in 2003, to obtain degrees in biomedical engineering and business administration.

They alleged that he was recruited into Hezbollah’s operations unit in 2008, and the following year became a naturalized US citizen. He communicated with his handler through coded emails, and received bouts of weapons training and drills on tactics in Lebanon, US prosecutors said.

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In the United States, he allegedly scoured for firearms suppliers, Israeli military personnel, airport security information and surveilled US military and law enforcement facilities in New York, sending information back to Hezbollah.

US officials say Debek visited Thailand in May 2009 on his US passport, tasked with cleaning up explosive precursors in a Bangkok house that had been abandoned by others because they were under surveillance.

Surveillance mission to Panama

In 2012, he went on a Hezbollah surveillance mission to Panama, tasked with identifying areas of weakness at the Panama Canal and providing information about how close someone could get to a ship passing through the Canal, officials said.

Panama’s government expressed “satisfaction” over the arrests, saying “it maintains active cooperation with international intelligence bodies to prevent this type of threat.” The statement said US authorities had alerted Panama in 2014 that Debek might try to enter that country, and “actions were immediately taken in line with the law to impede his entry.”

Debek allegedly told the FBI that he was detained by Hezbollah from December 2015 to April 2016, and falsely accused of spying for the United States. The Federal Bureau of Investigation believes that his military training included extensive instruction on bomb-making.