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Hezbollah arrests reveal threat in the U.S., FBI's Wray says this "is a time for vigilance"

Case details of Hezbollah operatives previously arrested in the United States show the reach of the terrorist organization and reveal threats lurking within our own borders during heightened security threats surrounding the Israel-Hamas war. FBI Director Wray told the Senate Homeland Security Committee: "This is not a time for panic, but it is a time for vigilance.”

Published: November 3, 2023 11:00pm

Updated: November 4, 2023 10:13am

In 2017, two Hezbollah-linked individuals were arrested simultaneously in different parts of the United States. Ali Kourani of Bronx, New York and Samer El Debek of Dearborn, Michigan were charged for terrorist activities on behalf of the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO), a component of Hezbollah, after obtaining U.S. citizenship. 

The criminal complaints filed by the Department of Justice detail wide-ranging activities by Kourani and El Debek, including surveillance of potential targets for attacks in the United States and Central America and training by Hezbollah in Lebanon.

These were only two of the 128 Hezbollah-linked individuals operating in the United States from 1997 to 2020 which researchers affiliated with The George Washington University, West Point, and the Department of Homeland Security identified in a 2022 report.

Israel and Hamas are now at war halfway across the globe, but the same terrorists that threaten Israel have been building networks in our hemisphere for years, and are likely to pose an increased threat to the United States, especially as tensions escalate between Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Yesterday, the leader of Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, gave public remarks on the unfolding conflict where he praised Hamas' attack but avoided committing his group to the wider conflict. Hezbollah and Israel have been engaged in low-intensity operations on the Lebanese border after Hezbollah fired rockets at Israel since the start of its war with Hamas. Israel launched fresh airstrikes today. 

The court documents from three Hezbollah-affiliated individuals arrested since 2017 reveal the danger that is lurking inside the United States’ own borders, made even more pressing by increasing encounters of terror watch list suspects at the southern border.

This concern is particularly acute now, according to Kevin Brock, former FBI Assistant Director for Intelligence who helped establish the Intelligence Directorate at the agency following the September 11th attacks, who argues that a terror suspects crossing our border could encourage groups like Hezbollah to conduct a similar attack on the United States as Hamas carried out on Israel.

“And the concern that I had after listening to President Biden's speech last week was that we're focused on the Middle East on the Ukraine. And we know now that there has been a intentional surge of military aged young males from countries that are either state sponsors of terrorism, or up to 170 of them who are on the terror watch list,” Brock said on the "Just the News, No Noise" television show last week.

“When we have that kind of vulnerability, then the attack on, from Gaza, on 10/7, becomes even more jarring. It was a kind of a new strategy where masses of young men came in well armed and just started shooting up civilian populations. Could that happen here?” he asked. “Well, in light of the information that we have the sudden surge of, of individuals coming from hostile nations, I think we have to be wary about that.”

Federal prosecutors have publicly charged at least three individuals linked to Hezbollah in the last six years. These cases shed light on the danger that terror groups pose in the United States.

Ali Kourani of New York, Samer El Debek of Dearborn, Michigan, and Alexei Saab of New Jersey were three terrorist operatives arrested since 2017 and charged with surveilling locations in the United States for and providing material support to Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO).

In 2017, Kourani was charged with providing material support to Hezbollah through his work with IJO.

Kourani was born in Lebanon in 1984 and eventually entered the United States legally in 2003 to pursue an education. The federal investigation found that Kourani was trained by Hezbollah at a camp in Lebanon before he entered the United States.

Once in the United States, Kourani was recruited by the Islamic Jihad Organization and applied for U.S. citizenship to facilitate his work for the terror group. Among other things, he was found to have surveilled military and law enforcement facilities in New York City, searched for weapons suppliers in the U.S., and worked to identify individuals affiliated with the Israeli Defense Forces.

Right after securing U.S. citizenship, Kourani was also recorded visiting China to secure a source of ammonium nitrate, a compound that can be used to manufacture explosives.

You can read the federal complaint filed against Kourani below:


Kourani was sentenced to 40 years in prison for his activities aiding Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad Organization.

Samer El Debek was arrested concurrently with Kourani in the summer of 2017 and charged with similar offenses. Beginning in 2008, El Debek received extensive training from Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad Organization including in bomb-making, weapons, and military tactics, according to the court documents.

Like Kourani, El Debek surveilled potential targets for Hezbollah. Unlike Kourani, his targets were outside the United States—particularly focused on the vital Panama Canal and the U.S. embassy abroad.

In 2011, El Debek took his first trip to Panama via Colombia and was tasked with locating both the U.S. and Israeli embassies in country and figuring out how to access the Panama Canal. Specifically, he was tasked with casing and identifying the security procedures at both the canal and the Israeli embassy. While in Panama, El Debek also sourced “explosive precursors”—or materials that can be used to build explosive devices.

El Debek took a second trip to Panama in 2012 to further assess weaknesses and security at the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal is a vital waterway to the United States and the West more broadly. In 2023, about 40% of U.S. container traffic transited the canal, about $270 billion in cargo annually, according to CNBC.

On that trip, IJO-Hezbollah directed El Debek to further assess the U.S. embassy, including its security procedures and periods of heavy traffic in an effort to plan for potential future attacks.

You can read the complaint against El Debek below:


Unlike Kourani, El Debek has not been sentenced on the terrorism charges. The indictment of Alexei Saab, another Hezbollah operative in the United States, indicates that El Debek is likely cooperating with U.S. authorities in their investigation of the terror group.

Securing El Debek’s cooperation may have something to do with his detention by Hezbollah for a short period from Dec. 2015 to April 2016. The organization accused him of being a spy for the United States, according to the court document. El Debek told federal investigators that he made a false confession to Hezbollah, saying he worked for the United States. This may have played a role in the United States securing his cooperation on future Hezbollah cases.

Alexei Saab was arrested in 2019 for the same kinds of activities as Kourani and El Debek. By now, the process should be familiar. Saab was a Lebanese citizen who obtained American citizenship after being recruited by Hezbollah. He attended a Hezbollah training before entering the United States legally and was training in surveillance tactics and explosive construction.

Saab wrote a report on New York City targets for Hezbollah that included federal buildings, the United Nations headquarters, the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, and the local airports, bridges and tunnels. In addition to New York City, he also surveilled sites in Washington, D.C., Boston, and Istanbul, Turkey. He was convicted in May of this year and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment.

You can read the criminal complaint against Saab’s below:


The U.S. university and government researchers who identified 128 Hezbollah-linked individuals charged by federal prosecutors wrote that Hezbollah operatives cooperate in “small, centralized hubs” and engage in criminal activity with “wider criminal enterprises.” They conclude that these Hezbollah networks are made up of a core group of prominent individuals with direct links to the organization, like Kourani and El Debek, and those around them with only tangential links to the organization, but who are willing to participate in criminal enterprises to advance the network’s goals.

The most prominent actions by these networks is to exploit the U.S. financial system for profits which can then be funneled back to Hezbollah through the central individuals. Only 13% of the individuals identified by the researchers conducted “operational support” for Hezbollah, which includes human smuggling, weapons procurement, and surveillance of potential targets. The three Hezbollah operatives above were the only individuals to be charged with what the researchers described as “pre-operational surveillance.”

Hezbollah’s roots also run deep throughout the countries south of the United States at a time when encounters of individuals on the terror watch list at the southern border have reached a record high. Recently, the San Diego Field Office of Customs and Border Patrol put out a warning to staff about potential encounters with individuals affiliated with Jihadist groups, including Hezbollah.

Hezbollah’s criminal networks have a close relationship with Nicolas Maduro’s authoritarian regime in Venezuela and have facilitated the Venezuela-Iran relationship. In the past, Hezbollah has conducted attacks against Israeli targets in Latin America, for example, a 1992 attack against the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The following year, Hezbollah struck a Jewish cultural center, killing at 85 people.

Hezbollah’s networks in Latin American remain intact, according to Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi, an expert in Hezbollah and Iranian operations, with a special expertise in their operations in Latin America.

Recently, the U.S. officials are issuing increasingly urgent warnings that the U.S. is vulnerable to a terrorist attack. FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before Congress on Tuesday about the heightened terror threat amid the Israel-Hamas war and border crisis.

"What has now increased is the greater possibility of one of these foreign terrorist organizations directing an attack in the United States," Wray told the Senate Homeland Security Committee. "This is not a time for panic, but it is a time for vigilance.”

The FBI did not respond directly to questions from Just the News on the specific threat that Hezbollah poses in the country, but pointed to a press release from last month and Director Wray’s statement before the Senate Committee.

“During the Israel-HAMAS conflict, the FBI is continuing to monitor threats both in the United States and overseas. As the conflict continues, the FBI has seen an increase in reports of threats against Jewish, Muslim, and Arab communities and institutions. We take all potential threats seriously and are working closely with our law enforcement partners to determine their credibility, share information, and take appropriate investigative action. As always, we encourage members of the public to immediately report anything they consider suspicious to law enforcement,” one press release by the agency read.

Director Wray highlighted Hezbollah’s efforts in the United States in his statement to the Senate committee.

“The arrests of individuals in the United States allegedly linked to Hezbollah’s main overseas terrorist arm, and their intelligence-collection and -procurement efforts, demonstrate Hezbollah’s interest in long-term contingency planning activities here in the Homeland,” he said.

A Department of Homeland Security official told Just the News that the department is working to prevent the entry of terrorists into the country. "DHS works with our international partners to share intelligence and other information, including to prevent individuals on the terrorist watchlist from entering the United States," the official said. 

Despite recent reporting indicating an increase in terrorist watch list encounters at the border, the official said that "Encounters of known or suspected terrorists attempting to cross the Southern Border, or encounters of those associated with such individuals, are uncommon." 

[Correction: this piece has been updated to include coverage of Hezbollah leader Nasrallah's speech Friday in Beirut, Lebanon]

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