(CNSNews.com) – A Lebanese-born man charged in New York on suspicion of scouting potential U.S. and Israeli targets for the Iranian-backed Shi’ite terrorist group Hezbollah became a naturalized American citizen after declaring to authorities that he had no associations with terrorists, according to a criminal complaint.
Acting on instructions from his Hezbollah handler, Ali Kourani of the Bronx – who had received weapons training in Lebanon in 2000 and was recruited in 2008 into what he described as the “black ops” component of the organization – duly obtained citizenship and a U.S. passport in 2009, papers before a Manhattan federal court show.
Just two years later, he was back in Lebanon, receiving more instruction from the terrorist group, including training in the use of rocket-propelled grenades, an AK-47 assault rifle, a Russian-made machine gun, and other firearms.
And once back in the U.S., Kourani was allegedly tasked by his handler to carry out surveillance on facilities in Manhattan, including FBI offices, a U.S. National Guard facility and a U.S. Army armory, as well as U.S. Secret Service building in Brooklyn.
He also collected and provided to his handler detailed information on security and other matters at JFK airport and “an international airport in another country,” according to the complaint.
Israelis were another surveillance target. Kourani was allegedly asked to provide information on individuals in the U.S. associated with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
The complaint says he believed the reason for this was because Hezbollah wanted to assassinate IDF personnel to avenge the death of the group’s terrorist chief, Imad Mughniyah, who was killed in a bomb blast in Damascus in 2008.
Kourani’s understanding of the “black ops” component that had recruited him, according to the document, was that it carried out operations on behalf of Hezbollah and “the Iranians,” and was led by Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah, who reported directly to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“As part of his work for Hezbollah, Kourani and others allegedly conducted covert surveillance of potential targets, including U.S. military bases and Israeli military personnel here in New York City,” NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said in a statement Thursday.
“Pre-operational surveillance is one of the hallmarks of Hezbollah in planning for future attacks,” he noted.
Kourani, now aged 32, was arrested in the Bronx on June 2. He has appeared in court and the criminal complaint against him was unsealed in Manhattan on Thursday.
When he applied for U.S. citizenship Kourani attested, under penalty of perjury, that he had never “been a member of or in any way associated (either directly or indirectly) with … [a] terrorist organization.”
He also declared, among other things, that he had never “lied to a U.S. government official to gain entry or admission into the United States.”
Because of that alleged conduct, one of eight counts Kourani is facing is “unlawful procurement of citizenship or naturalization to facilitate an act of international terrorism.” Conviction carries a penalty of up to 25 years’ imprisonment.
Other counts relate to providing material support to Hezbollah, receiving military-type training from the group, and weapons offenses. Penalties for each count range from five years’ to life imprisonment.
A second man arrested on the same day as Kourani has also been charged in an unrelated case with alleged activities on behalf of Hezbollah.
Samer el-Debek, 37, of Dearborn, Mich., is also a naturalized U.S. citizen.
In Debek’s case, he was allegedly recruited by Hezbollah in 2007 and was a paid agent of the group until about 2015. He, too, received military training from Hezbollah in Lebanon on several occasions.
The complaint says Debek was tasked by the group to photograph the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Panama, and to report on security procedures and vehicular traffic patterns around the U.S. Embassy there.
Debek was also asked to identify areas of vulnerability at the Panama Canal and on ships passing through the crucial waterway.
The U.S. government designated Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.
The complaint notes the group’s history of terrorist attacks, including:
–suicide bombings in 1983 of the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut, which killed more than 300 people, including 241 U.S. Marines, soldiers and sailors;
— the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which cost 29 lives;
— the 1994 bombing of the Argentine-Israel Mutual Association (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires, which left 85 people dead;
— the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847. (The Athens-Rome flight with its 153 passengers and crew was diverted to Lebanon, where the terrorists beat and then shot dead 23-year-old U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem, dumping his body onto the Beirut runway.)