Hezbollah supporters hold images of the late founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini (L) and Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenai, during celebrations in Beirut on February 6, 2019. (AFP)

By Emanuele Ottolenghi

September 27, 2019

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced the indictment last week of U.S. citizen Ali Hassan Saab, a resident of Morristown, New Jersey, and suspected Hezbollah agent. The indictment provides mounting evidence that Hezbollah has patiently and quietly built up its terrorist infrastructure on U.S. soil.

Hezbollah-planted sleeper cells are critical to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategy of asymmetric warfare, especially as tensions escalate between Tehran and Washington. Iran views terrorist operations as a legitimate policy option but recognizes the advantage of plausible deniability. Thus, Hezbollah cells gather intelligence, provide logistical support, and carry out operations, although only Tehran decides if and when to strike U.S. targets.

The U.S. government alleges that Saab worked on behalf of Hezbollah’s External Security Organization (ESO), which coordinates planning for terrorist attacks abroad. In 2017, U.S. authorities arrested two other ESO agents operating on U.S. soil, Ali Kourani and Samer El Debek. Kourani has already been convicted and sentenced, whereas Debek, according to Saab’s criminal complaint, is cooperating with authorities.

Saab’s profile is similar to Debek’s and Kourani’s: He is accused of having a longstanding association with the ESO (in his case, since 1996); of having undergone extensive training in Lebanon, including with explosives; and of having conducted surveillance of potential targets on U.S. soil during his nearly two-decade long residence in the U.S.

Saab’s indictment confirms Hezbollah’s modus operandi in the U.S., which is to employ agents who enter the United States legally and then acquire U.S. permanent residency status and eventually citizenship. All three captured ESO operatives in the U.S. acquired citizenship before their handlers tasked them with surveillance of targets and other terror-related activities.

This preference for getting operatives in through the front door is evident in Hezbollah’s reliance on dual nationals to carry out operations worldwide. In all recent terror plots in which Hezbollah has been implicated, the captured operatives used genuine foreign passports. (In the case of the 2012 suicide bombing in Burgas, Bulgaria, which targeted Israeli tourists, the attacker also had a valid passport.)  Mohamad Amadar, who was arrested in Peru in October 2014, is the only ESO operative to use a fraudulently obtained passport to reach his final destination.

Hezbollah financiers and facilitators also have a strong tendency to acquire legal residency in their countries of operation. U.S. authorities have prosecuted and sanctioned an array of such individuals for laundering drug proceeds from South American cartels.

In every country where Hezbollah’s terror cells and terror-finance networks operate, their agents have exploited weaknesses in the immigration system to their advantage. This requires fresh thinking, especially by the U.S. and its partners in the Western Hemisphere, about the naturalization process and those who exploit the system for nefarious purposes.

Easy paths to citizenship, including via investment, are common in many Western Hemisphere countries, where thorough vetting is often lacking. There needs to be tougher due diligence in the application processes. That extends to the United States, where immigration policy has clearly been exploited by terrorists to enter the country legally.

Foundation for Defense of Democracies

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.