NEW YORK – Two men from Michigan and New York City were tasked by a terrorist organization with looking for potential terrorism targets in New York and Panama, U.S. authorities said Thursday as they announced the suspects' recent arrests.
Samer El Debek, 37, of Dearborn, Michigan, and Ali Kourani, 32, of the Bronx, were charged in Manhattan federal court with providing support to a terrorist organization. El Debek was arrested June 1 in Livonia, Michigan; Kourani was arrested the same day in the Bronx. Both men were being held in New York City after court appearances.
Defense lawyers did not immediately comment.
In a release, authorities said the men tried to provide support to Hezbollah's Islamic Jihad organization after receiving military training from the group.
They said El Debek looked for potential targets in Panama, including U.S. and Israeli embassies, and tried to learn how close someone could get to ships passing through the Panama Canal and whether there was weakness in its construction, while Kourani surveilled American targets, including military and law enforcement facilities in New York City.
Authorities said El Debek has told the FBI that he was detained by Hezbollah from December 2015 until April 2016 after he was falsely accused of spying for the United States. They said that from late 2014 until February, El Debek has conducted over 250 Facebook searches with words including "martyrs of the holy defense," ''martyrs of Islamic resistance" and "martyrs of the Islamic resistance in Lebanon."
William F. Sweeney Jr., head of the New York FBI office, said the charges "reveal once again that the New York City region remains a focus of many adversaries, demonstrated as alleged in this instance by followers of a sophisticated and determined organization with a long history of coordinating violent activities on behalf of Hezbollah."
New York Police Commissioner James P. O'Neill said Kourani and others conducted covert surveillance of potential targets, including U.S. military bases and Israeli military personnel in New York City.
"Pre-operational surveillance is one of the hallmarks of Hezbollah in planning for future attacks," he said.
O'Neill noted that Kourani, who was born in Lebanon, received sophisticated military training overseas on at least two occasions, including in the use of a rocket propelled grenade. He said El Debek also was charged with possessing extensive bomb-making training from Hezbollah.
Authorities said Kourani attended Hezbollah-sponsored weapons training in Lebanon in 2000 when he was 16. They said he lawfully entered the U.S. in 2003, obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree in biomedical engineering in 2009 and a master's in business administration in 2013.
Authorities said El Debek, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was first recruited by Hezbollah in late 2007 or early 2008. They said he received military training from the group from 2008 through 2014.
In May 2009, El Debek used his U.S. passport to go to Thailand on Hezbollah's behalf to clean explosive materials out of a house in Bangkok after others had to leave because they were under surveillance, prosecutors said.