Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned last Friday morning January 3, 2020 that a “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the US after an American airstrike killed Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—Quds Force, assassinated along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of Kataeb Hezbollah—an Iranian-controlled, Shia Iraqi group—by a US military drone strike in Baghdad, Iraq.
As long time Iran watcher from the Carnegie Foundation, Karim Sadjadpour recently noted, “Ayatollah Khamenei must careful calibrate his reaction. A weak response risks losing face, an excessive response risks losing his head.” As two former New York Police Department (NYPD) Intelligence Division officials charged with assessing both Iran and Hezbollah’s potential for retaliation in New York City (NYC), we believe there is a significant reason for extreme vigilance in New York.
Former Director of the US National Counter Terrorism Centre, Nicholas Rasmussen noted in 2017, Hezbollah is “determined to give itself a potential [US] homeland option as a critical component of its terrorism playbook…This is something that those of us in the counter-terrorism community take very, very seriously.” This Iranian reaction, potentially delivered by its proxy Hezbollah, will be calibrated because, as recently arrested Hezbollah operative, Samer el Debek noted, “Hizballah does not kill just to kill…Hizballah’s actions sometimes are intended to send a political message.”
Retaliation outside the Middle East by Hezbollah and Iran has been a trademark of Iran’s asymmetric warfare since 1992. Both the assassinations of Hezbollah leaders Abbas Musawi by Israel in 1992 and Imad Mugniyah by Israel in 2008—with support from the US—triggered responses abroad and outside of the Middle East.
In 2008, NYPD Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly sent an NYPD Intelligence Division team, including one of the authors, to Buenos Aires and the Tri-Border region—Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay—to meet with Argentine intelligence officials to better understand Iran and Hezbollah’s modus operandi. Argentine officials confirmed to the authors in private meetings that Hezbollah, in cooperation with various elements of Iranian intelligence, was directly responsible for the 1992 attack against the Israeli Embassy in Buenos and that it was in retaliation for the Israeli assassination of Secretary General of Hezbollah, Abbas Musawi.
A similar situation occurred in the wake of the 2008 assassination of Hezbollah terrorist mastermind, Imad Mugniyah, by Israel—again, with support from the US—in Damascus, Syria; Hezbollah later plotted several attacks to avenge his death. Only the 2012 bombing of an Israeli tourist bus in Burgas, Bulgaria was successful. Hezbollah’s other plans for retaliation were thwarted in Azerbaijan, Turkey, Bulgaria, Tukey, Kuwait and Cyprus. So, if retaliation is expected, why should New York City be concerned?
According to senior NYPD officials, commenting in 2017, “Pre-operational surveillance is one of the hallmarks of [Hizballah] in planning for future attacks.” The surveillance performed in New York City was done “in support of anticipated IJO [Islamic Jihad organization] terrorist attacks.”
What drives concerns about the security implications for New York City are three recent and separate arrests of Hezbollah “sleeper operatives” linked to the city. These arrests by the NYPD and Joint Terrorism Task Force are by officers who worked for Hezbollah’s External Security Organization (ESO), or Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO) in the last few years. All three were sent to the United States.
The ESO or IJO is responsible for the planning and coordination of intelligence, counterintelligence, and terrorist activities on behalf of Hezbollah outside of Lebanon. One of the sleeper operatives was Lebanese national, Ali Kourani, who was arrested in New York City in June 2017 and sentenced in December 2019 to 40 years in prison “based on terrorism, sanctions, and immigration convictions arising from Kourani’s illicit work as an operative for the Islamic Jihad Organization, Hizballah’s external attack-planning component.” Kourani gathered intelligence and conducted surveillance of US military and intelligence outposts in New York City, as well as airports in NYC and elsewhere, in support of anticipated IJO terrorist attacks.
The criminal complaint against Kourani noted was, “to maintain ostensibly normal lives the world over… [and] could be tasked with operational activity should the ESO decide to take action.” According to court documents, “Kourani searched for suppliers who could provide weapons for such attacks, identified people who could be recruited or targeted for violence, and gathered information about and conducted surveillance of potential targets within [the US].”
That same year, Samer el Debek, another Lebanese national and ESO operative, who operated in New York and New Jersey was also arrested in the United States. El Debek received training in basic military tactics, the handling of various weapons, surveillance and counter-surveillance techniques, and the creation and handling of explosives and explosive devices and acted on Hezbollah’s behalf in Thailand and Panama.
Lastly there was Alexei Saab, a Lebanese national residing in New Jersey who was arrested in 2019 because according to the court documents, “while living in the United States, Saab served as an operative of Hizballah and conducted surveillance of possible target locations in order to help [Hezbollah] prepare for potential future attacks against the United States.” His report on New York City for Hezbollah had a detailed summary and pictures of the following locations: 26 Federal Plaza, the United Nations headquarters, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, Rockefeller Center, Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange, Times Square, the Empire State Building, Herald Square and Macy’s, as well as New York City’s’ three major airports and all of the bridges and tunnels in and out of Manhattan.
NYC has been an iconic target for potential terrorist attacks as it is seen as the ultimate symbol of American power. However, maybe even more importantly, there are notable similarities between NYC and Buenos Aires. Both cities have a significant Shia Lebanese diaspora populations into which sleeper operatives can hide, as well as the only Iranian governmental official representation in the US. There are also a multitude of Jewish/Israeli targets in the city. Most importantly, like in Buenos Aires, the presence of Iran’s UN mission in NYC allows officials from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence to live and operate in New York with official diplomatic cover.
According to private meetings with the authors, the Argentine intelligence officials said in both the 1992 attack against the Israeli embassy and the 1994 attack against the Jewish Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) cultural center in Buenos Aires, Iran leveraged a highly complex local intelligence network run from its embassy in Buenos Aires via its Cultural Bureau. It utilized mosques controlled by the Iranian Embassy and exploited a local ex-patriate Lebanese Shia population in the Tri-Border region sympathetic and connected to Lebanon, —whether wittingly or not—as facilitators. All of these elements are present in New York.
If all of the preceding were not a cause for concern, there is also the fact that between 2002 and 2010, the NYPD and federal authorities detected at least six incidents involving Iranian diplomatic personnel that were assessed as conducting hostile reconnaissance of New York City.
With all of this in mind, as well as past investigations at the NYPD Intelligence Division, we can state with high confidence that the threat of retaliation by Hezbollah in New York City is a genuine threat which must be treated with extreme vigilance. Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, stated that he would “continue on the path” of Qasem Soleimani and called on Hezbollah operatives globally to carry out “the appropriate punishment,” stating that this “will be the responsibility and task of all resistance fighters worldwide.”
Nevertheless, since the creation of NYPD’s sophisticated intelligence collection and analysis counter terrorism programs in the wake of 9/11 and sustained by three successive police commissioners, the long-standing attention to threat of Hezbollah/Iran has been maintained and is well resourced. Coupled with strong relationships with federal intelligence partners, the NYPD should have all it needs to stay ahead of the curve, regardless of what hostile actors may be plotting.
Ioan Pop is a former senior intelligence analyst at the NYPD Intelligence Division and currently an associate managing director at K2 Intelligence.
Mitchell D. Silber, a principal at the Guardian Group, is the former director of intelligence analysis at the NYPD Intelligence Division and is the incoming executive director of the Community Security Initiative, a joint program of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and UJA-Federation of New York.