This is the third installment of a series derived from two ongoing federal court prosecutions of individuals who allegedly worked as undercover operatives for Iranian Hezbollah’s notorious “Unit 910” foreign terrorist wing. Part I and Part II delivered revelations about U.S. assassination and target surveillance activities of Bronx-based Lebanese immigrant Ali Kourani.
This article examines what has become public so far about a seemingly related case against Samer El Debek of Dearborn, Michigan.
For all intents and purposes, the government’s case against Dearborn, Michigan resident Samer El Debek is on ice.
Little from the government or media has emerged about the El Debek charges filed more than 17 months ago. Those charges stated that, for more than a decade, the naturalized U.S. citizen clandestinely served Iran and Hezbollah as a terrorist operative, scoping out targets as far away as Panama and Thailand.
Also, nothing has yet emerged regarding any connection between El Debek’s case and the very similar case against Bronx-based Ali Kourani. Their indictments were announced the same day, in the same judicial district of New York, in June 2017.
Further, last year’s media reports of the indictments managed to omit the most fascinating details about the El Debek case. Those you can read here.
Federal prosecutors have surprisingly sought and obtained 17 monthly “interest of justice” delays (the last one in October 2018). Meanwhile, the revelatory filings are piling up in the Kourani case. Is anyone else watching?
No news on Islamic terrorism is news in the age of Trump
While a legal strategy no doubt informs the government’s decisions to put off the El Debek case while the Kourani case advances, political bias is the likely culprit behind media failures to dig on either case. Drawing attention to these “Hezbollah in the U.S.” cases, after all, might undermine a demonstrably false narrative that Islamic terror is less of a threat than “alt-right” domestic terrorism inspired by conspiratorial Donald Trump administration dog-whistling.
Not a single reporter has interviewed El Debek’s neighbors, relatives, friends, and co-workers, nor attempted the standard follow-up coverage that should attend a case of such rare import to national security as this. The one New York Times effort to weigh in on the cases, an October 11, 2018 piece by Benjamin Weiser, purposefully overlooked an incredible trove of new revelations about the Kourani case, which was by then readily available. Instead, Weiser focused on an arcane, irrelevant, and judicially debunked angle. The article asked no questions at all about the El Debek situation.
In the 17 months since the El Debek charges were announced, no reporters have even claimed an attempt to ask U.S. prosecutors or the FBI why the El Debek case remains stalled like this — even though sound and publishable reasons would likely be provided.
The lack of news in the El Debek case is the news. Below, read all the stunning details you should have been presented with already.
Compelling causes for inquiry; collecting on targets in America, Panama, and Thailand
Eight criminal counts accuse El Debek of a range of highly duplicitous and damaging acts against American security and against the security of American allies like Israel and Panama. These are based on five FBI interviews with El Debek between September 8, 2016, and May 23, 2017.
The criminal complaint says El Debek, now 38, was recruited to join Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad Organization — known as “Unit 910” — as a salaried operative in at least 2007 ($1,000 a month plus medical expenses). He was most likely recruited because he held a U.S. passport. The complaint describes some context necessary to understand the significance of El Debek’s alleged actions as a paid operative after his induction.
Unit 910 is described as “a highly compartmentalized component of Hizballah responsible for the planning, preparation, and execution of intelligence, counterintelligence, and terrorist activities outside of Lebanon.” It goes on to list a litany of bombings and assassinations attributable to Unit 910 operatives, including a 2012 bombing that killed Israeli tourists on a bus in Bulgaria, and foiled plots against Israelis in Cyprus and Thailand. In those countries, local anti-terrorism police arrested 910 operatives, and found facilities where massive amounts of bomb-making material were stored.
In 2008, not long after his induction, El Debek received extensive training in bomb-making, weapons, tradecraft, and military tactics, per the complaint. He received more training in Lebanon through 2014, including military tactics such as how to conduct ambushes, and training with a variety of automatic firearms, pistols, and shoulder-fired rockets. On at least four occasions between 2009 and 2013, El Debek received training in surveillance and counter-surveillance techniques. He also learned how to build bombs by mixing, drying, and refrigerating “relevant materials.”
He needed that training because his job was to travel “operationally” on behalf of Hezbollah.
By the time he completed all the courses, El Debek “had a high degree of technical sophistication” with bomb-making components “substantially similar to those used to construct the IED used in the Hizballah bombing of an Israeli tour bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, in 2012.”
El Debek is related to the dead bomber in that attack. Mohamad Husseini was his aunt’s nephew.
El Debek’s first mission abroad
In 2009, not long after his first training in Lebanon, El Debek was sent to Thailand with an important mission: move explosive precursors that other Unit 910 operatives had stored in a room inside a Bangkok safe house. They had been forced to flee in fear that their covers had somehow been blown and that the safe house was under surveillance. El Debek was chosen because he could use his U.S. passport to enter Thailand through Malaysia and would not need a visa where the application might draw scrutiny. He also was given a cover story: if anyone asked, just say he was looking for sex in Thailand. He was told to find a female to “draw out any surveillance on the house in Bangkok.”
He hired a female escort and sent her into the house while he watched to see if anyone rushed in to arrest her. Nothing. Later, he went in himself. He moved 50 boxes of ammonium nitrate stored there into his rental car and poured the rest down a drain. A couple of days later, he was instructed to return the material to the house and pay rent to the landlord. It’s possible that was some of the material used in a thwarted plot to bomb Israeli tourists in Thailand.
The potential that he was the guinea pig who could have been caught in the suspected surveillance must have been stressful. Before flying home, El Debek emailed two fellow operatives that “I’m ok … I finish the deal here … suppose to arrive Sunday … don’t u guys worry.”
The Panama Missions: “Irrigate the land with blood”
In 2011, the year before the Bulgaria and Thailand plots were executed, El Debek was sent to Panama for an entire month. That was the first of two such trips. Prep work began in 2010, when El Debek was sent to language school in Lebanon to learn Spanish. His cover story was that he was there to find business opportunities. A couple of weeks before leaving, El Debek left an ode to the cause on his Facebook page, in Arabic: “Do not make peace or share food with those who killed your people. Irrigate the land with blood and quench the thirst of your forefathers until their bones talk with you.”
He used his U.S. passport to fly directly from Lebanon to Columbia and then to Panama.
His assignment was to figure out how to open a business in Panama and also to locate the U.S. and Israeli embassies and the Panama Canal. He told the FBI he was instructed to “case and identify security procedures at the Canal and the Israeli Embassy. El Debek, meanwhile, continued taking Spanish lessons while in Panama.
While in Panama City, he located hardware stores that sold bomb-making precursors like acetone and battery acid.
He went on a second month-long mission to Panama in 2012. Hezbollah wanted him to “identify areas of weakness in construction at the Canal, and provide information about Canal security and how close someone could get to a ship.” To accomplish this, it appears El Debek took a “Pirate Trail and Panama Canal tour” and inquired about a bird-watching tour in Soberania Park, which is adjacent to the Panama Canal. He took a lot of photographs and later got them to Unit 910 in Lebanon.
Presumably, Hezbollah still has this material.
He was told to take pictures of the Israeli Embassy in Panama, too. But he said that was too risky, so he didn’t do it (good to know Israeli counter-surveillance is so feared; Ali Kourani expressed a similar fear about the Israeli embassy in New York).
El Debek didn’t take photos of the U.S. embassy, either. But he did spend time taking notes about the embassy and provided details about its security. His Unit 910 handlers were particularly interested in “periods of heavy traffic into and out of the embassy, vehicular traffic patterns in front of it, and the locations of houses and apartments” in close proximity. El Debek made a point to mention to his handlers that he believed people waiting for their visa appointments waited outside the embassy.
After about a month, El Debek flew directly to Lebanon and provided everything to his handler.
The End, spying for Americans named “Jeff” and “Michael”
El Debek told the FBI that in about December 2015, Hezbollah detained him and accused him of spying for the United States.
He said he was held for nearly five months during which time his captors claimed they knew of his spying before he traveled on any of his missions. Apparently under “repeated interrogations,” El Debek told the FBI that he gave a false confession that he worked for the FBI, CIA, and the police and was paid $500,000 for his service to the United States government. He even made up names for his American handlers: Jeff and Michael.
The story of incarceration and spying accusations is probably a ruse to show El Debek had separated from Hezbollah, not least because government prosecutors put into a public document that American intelligence officers named Jeff and Michael were running him.
But more so because the FBI complaint states that from November 2014 straight through to February 28, 2017, during the time El Debek supposedly was incarcerated by Hezbollah on spying charges, his Facebook page showed that he conducted approximately 258 searches using terms such as “martyrs of the holy defense, “martyrs of the Islamic resistance,” and “Hizballah martyrs.”
To be continued when actual news warrants.
Follow Todd Bensman on Twitter: @BensmanTodd