The Department of Justice announced on Sept. 19 that Alexei Saab, 42, of Morristown, New Jersey, aka Ali Hassan Saab, Alex Saab and Rachid, was charged in a nine-count indictment for offenses related to his surveillance of possible targets for Hezbollah.
“According to the allegations, while living in the United States, Saab served as an operative of Hezballah and conducted surveillance of possible target locations in order to help the foreign terrorist organization prepare for potential future attacks against the United States,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said in a statement. “Such covert activities conducted on U.S. soil are a clear threat to our national security and I applaud the agents, analysts, and prosecutors who are responsible for this investigation and prosecution.”
This indictment is the latest case of a terrorist spy performing reconnaissance of American bridges, power plants, shopping malls, military bases and other potential future targets.
An old al Qaeda manual discovered by the Manchester Police in the United Kingdom back in 2000 revealed the terrorist groups’ guidance to terrorists, as well as to terrorist spies. The 180-page training manual’s 11th and 12th chapters dealt with espionage.
“The spy is called an eye because his work is through his eyes or because of his excessive preoccupation with observation, as if all his being is an eye,” the manual noted.
As a terrorist “Eye,” Saab surveilled dozens of locations in New York City, including the United Nations headquarters, the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, Times Square and the Empire State Building. According to the indictment, he provided detailed information and photographs on these locations to the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO), a component of Hezbollah responsible for the planning and coordination of intelligence, counterintelligence, and terrorist activities on behalf of Hezbollah outside of Lebanon.
Saab focused on the structural weaknesses of the locations he surveilled in order to determine how a future attack could cause the most destruction. The FBI recovered photographs that reflected his spying activities from his electronic devices.
“As alleged, Saab began his training with Hezbollah operatives overseas and, while living in the U.S., surveilled multiple locations in major cities. Today’s announcement highlights the persistent efforts of a sophisticated international terrorist organization to scout targets at home and abroad, identifying vulnerabilities, and gathering essential details useful for a future attack,” FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. said in a statement. “In the city that never sleeps, neither do the FBI agents, detectives, and analysts who work on the JTTF to protect it, and because of their work, Saab’s future surveillances will be limited to a cell. We cannot do this work alone. I would like to thank the countless private security professionals who protect many of these sites, remind them to remain vigilant in order to make the enemy’s job more difficult, and I would ask the general public to continue to report suspicious activity to law enforcement like you have so many times in the past.”
The indictment explained that Hezbollah is a Lebanon-based Shia Islamic organization with political, social and terrorist components. Hezbollah was founded in the 1980s with support from Iran after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and its mission includes establishing a fundamentalist Islamic state in Lebanon. Since Hezbollah’s formation, the organization has been responsible for numerous terrorist attacks that have killed hundreds, including United States citizens and military personnel. In 1997, the U.S. Department of State designated Hezbollah a Foreign Terrorist Organization. In 2001, the U.S. Department of Treasury designated Hezbollah a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity. In 2010, State Department officials described Hezbollah as the most technically capable terrorist group in the world and a continued security threat to the United States.
Saab joined Hezbollah in 1996. He lawfully entered the United States in 2000 using a Lebanese passport. In 2005, Saab applied for naturalized citizenship and falsely affirmed, under penalty of perjury, that he had never been a member of or in any way associated with a terrorist organization. In August 2008, Saab became a naturalized U.S. citizen, although he continued to spy for Hezbollah.
As intelligence and law enforcement officials have told me, to plan for a terrorist attack, a terrorist must first act as a spy. Those officials explained that a traditional spy performs strategic espionage in pursuit of a long-term strategic goal. But a terrorist spy gathers information for a far more sudden and violent attack that is meant to cause maximum shock and fear. As lives are at immediate risk, this is a cause for immediate concern and action.
The Saab arrest illustrates that America remains a target from overseas terrorist organizations. Thankfully, the FBI closed in on Saab, but all Americans should remain vigilant.
• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.
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