Because revelatory cases like these come around so rarely, this series seeks to underline what was missed or under-emphasized by traditional media coverage — and also to put what wasn’t missed into proper context from a homeland security perspective. This series of reports is based on a review and analysis of hundreds of publicly filed court records from the ongoing federal prosecution of alleged Bronx-based Hezbollah operative Ali Kourani and Dearborn, Michigan-based Samer El Debek.
By Todd Bensman
A purposefully ambiguous “association of western intelligence organizations” hosts a unique public website titled “Stop 910”. Whoever runs it solicits information — in English, Spanish, and Arabic — to out sleeper agents of the notorious external terrorism service of Hezbollah, known by the nom de guerre “Unit 910.” The “association” offers reward money, photos of suspected operatives it wants identified, and instructions on how to anonymously inform.
The site’s stated purpose is “to end Hezbollah-perpetrated terror in Lebanon and abroad.” It’s mere presence hints at a desperate spy-versus-spy global intelligence war playing out between Iran and Israel and its allies. Not much was commonly known about contemporary Unit 910 operations inside the United States — until now.
The purveyors of the Stop 910 website are no doubt gleeful about what’s coming out of two rare U.S. Department of Justice prosecutions of reputed Unit 910 members. Most notably, the federal terrorism case against a Bronx resident by the name of Ali Kourani, 34, is producing a crush of remarkably detailed revelations emblematic of how 910 has been operating in America in recent years.
Missing the Story
Among the documents pouring out of the Kourani case, for instance, are lightly redacted, normally classified internal FBI reports known as “FD-302 forms.” These publicly name 15 people whom Kourani fingered as probable Unit 910 operatives or Hezbollah-linked sympathizers in New York, New Jersey, Florida, and Canada. The 302s name a Queens mosque Kourani told them was aligned with Hezbollah, and lists the names of reputed sympathizers involved in credit card fraud, counterfeit clothing businesses, an auto parts theft scam, and exporting cars to West Africa (a familiar Hezbollah global money-laundering hallmark). The other prosecution, not yet clearly connected to Kourani, names Samer El Debek of Dearborn, Michigan, as a 910 operative. Both were arrested in June 2017, but the El Debek proceedings have been purposefully delayed for unspecified reasons, so no new filings there.
Because revelatory cases like these come around so rarely, this report seeks to underline what was missed or under-emphasized by mainstream media coverage — and also to put what wasn’t missed into proper context from a homeland security perspective. This report is based on a review and analysis of hundreds of publicly filed court records.
From a law enforcement intelligence perspective like mine, it is downright surprising that some suspect names were purposefully placed in the public realm, along with phone numbers, locations, entity names, and email addresses. These should have caused the opening of other investigations that may well be ongoing and could be at risk if targets are exposed.
At the same time, from a journalism perspective like mine, the absence of media exploitation of all this is just as surprising.
The arrests drew decent initial media coverage but not much since the case developed, and certainly none mentioning FBI 302s, or that Kourani’s brother was also a U.S.-based Hezbollah operative but went through deportation proceedings rather than prosecution, or that the father of these alleged terrorist brothers had himself smuggled over the U.S.-Mexico border. Instead, an October 15, 2018, pieceby the New York Times about the Ali case — whose reporter saw all of these documents — chose to concentrate on a defeated defense argument that mendacious FBI agents swindled the information out of Kourani. The claim was debunked by the presiding judge.
Much more lays unamplified in the public record — with more on the way. Kourani has denied wrongdoing, and he is innocent until proven otherwise at a trial tentatively set for March 2019.
Recruitment, Mexico Border Infiltration, and a Doorman Apartment
Ali Kourani was born in 1984 to an extended Lebanese family clan that he once described to FBI agents as “the bin Ladens of Hezbollah.” He has four siblings. Under unclear circumstances, he legally entered the United States from Cyprus in 2003, probably claiming refugee status to obtain permanent residency. He went to school, earning a BS in biomedical engineering and then an MBA.
Kourani applied for citizenship in 2008 and was naturalized the following year. He married a Lebanese woman from the clan and had two children, all living in Canada today. Kourani had a side hustle in New York that would later come in handy as he was looking for a place to store explosives: hawking counterfeit clothing. (More on that in a future column.)
The family connectivity, if nothing else, provided good reason for the FBI to approach Kourani in about 2016 to ask about Hezbollah. He rebuffed the agents at first, of course. Later while visiting Lebanon, a family brawl ensued over custody of the couple’s two children. Kourani stormed over to the American embassy in Beirut and offered to trade information for revenge.
He asked for his in-laws and their extended Hezbollah family to be placed on a no-fly list and be arrested; for help getting his kids to immigrate to him in the U.S. from Canada; for help getting his mother and father to immigrate to the U.S. from Lebanon; for a job with a salary of $120,000; and said a New York apartment building with a doorman would be nice.
The FBI let Kourani and his lawyer believe he had become an informant in exchange for this wish list.
But promises were carefully never made or inferred. The agents — and soon, the presiding judge — saw his information during another five meetings in New York as a criminal confession.
What emerged was the following intelligence.
Hezbollah’s Unit 910 recruited Kourani in 2008 — the first year he was eligible to apply for American citizenship — through well-placed relative Sheikh Hussein Kourani during a trip to Lebanon. One of Kourani’s first assignments was to submit a citizenship application necessary to freely travel abroad on Unit 910 business. He allegedly marked “no” in the citizenship application form box asking if he had ever been involved with a terrorist organization, one of the crimes for which he is now currently charged.
Stop910.com describes Hezbollah’s “External Security Organization,” or the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO), as a “strictly compartmented” group of undercover Lebanese Shiite killer emigres trained in covert operations tradecraft and strategically placed around the world. Their mission is to not only identify human and physical targets, but to hit them.
Unit 910 cadres committed murderous attacks against civilian Jews and Israelis in Argentina in the early 1990s, and more recently in Bulgaria and Thailand. During saber-rattling with President Trump earlier this year over nuclear deal sanctions, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Gen. Qasem Soleimani warned: “Mr. Gambler, Trump! I’m telling you that we are close to you, exactly where, you wouldn’t think that we are.” He was no doubt referring to Unit 910, the IJO, which took Kourani in.
His recruitment came at a time when Hezbollah was gearing up for revenge attacks against Israel for the February 2008 assassination of Unit 910 leader Imad Mughniyah, whose spare tire exploded, killing him in Damascus. While in Lebanon for training that year, he was assigned to a handler named “Fadi,” who Kourani believed later helped run the 2012 bus bombing targeting Israelis in Bulgaria and disrupted 2014 attacks in Thailand. Fadi also appeared to oversee all unit operatives in the U.S. and Canada.
Kourani was taught how to communicate with Fadi using an old pager system and seven disposable email and Facebook accounts. Kourani’s father Muhammed Kourani and brother Moustafa Kourani were dialed in. When Kourani would arrive in Lebanon for debriefings on his U.S. activities, he would send pager codes to Fadi, who would then contact his brother or father’s cell phone within 48 hours to have them set up a meeting. Supporting Hezbollah was a family affair: Kourani identified his brother as a “member” of Hezbollah; his father is described as being “close” to known Hezbollah associates.
This association is also significant as a border security and illegal immigration enforcement aside. A one-paragraph footnote in the court records states that the father illegally infiltrated into the United States through the U.S.-Mexico border. That would put him in a rare — but expanding — category of suspected migrant-terrorists who entered the U.S. in such a manner since 9/11.
Details about the father’s border entry are scant, but the court records state that Muhammed Kourani was able to stay in the U.S. long enough to fraudulently marry a woman to gain legal residency.
He then used his legal residence status to help the brother, Moustafa, also gain legal residency inside the United States.
Nothing is publicly known about how Moustafa entered the United States, or if he too allegedly worked on behalf of Hezbollah. However, later during the FBI’s 2017 investigation of Kourani, records show the FBI did indeed have an open terrorism case on Moustafa while the Hezbollah “member” brother was in deportation proceedings. It’s unclear what became of either the terrorism or immigration cases against the brother, as is the nature of their father’s activities. At some point, however, Muhammed Kourani returned to Lebanon.
First Assignment: Build a Target List of New York Jewish Businessmen and IDF Veterans
In Lebanon, Ali Kourani underwent training in counter-surveillance and in withstanding interviews by foreign intelligence agents. He also underwent weapons training: small arms, submachine guns, and shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenade launchers. He would return to Lebanon fairly often to debrief his handler and for more training and assignments.
A top priority of Hezbollah at that time was revenge for the killing of Imad Mughniyah. Kourani’s handler, Fadi, wanted him to gather intelligence on security surrounding the Israeli consulate in New York, and to identify Jewish businessmen in the New York City area who were former or current members of the Israeli Defense Forces. “Specifically, Fadi tasked Kourani to identify former high-ranking IDF veterans for the 2006 war in Lebanon,” according to one FBI 302. Fadi wanted phone numbers, addresses, business information, and email addresses. Kourani was encouraged to develop professional relationships with these potential targets.
Despite all of his training, Kourani described himself as hapless. He said he thought the mission to case the Israeli consulate was too risky, so he didn’t do it. He queried “IDF” on LinkedIn, and “found multiple individuals in New York.” He said he reached out to a Jewish locksmith, but never followed up.
But he also cased a government armory in Manhattan, and scoped out buildings housing the FBI and the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services processing his naturalization papers. He brought video back to the home office in Lebanon.
As one FBI document paraphrased him saying, Kourani lived a double life as one of Hezbollah’s “sleepers … tasked to maintain ostensibly normal lives the world over, who could be tasked with operational activity should the ESO decide to take action.” More on that shortly.
Next up: Joining the New York Department of Motor Vehicles, Becoming a Suicide Bomber, and locating an Explosives Depot.
Follow Todd Bensman on Twitter: @BensmanTodd