The New York Police Department has boosted security to thwart potential terrorist attacks on the city in response to Iran’s threats to punish the United States for killing its top military general, Qasem Soleimani, in Iraq. The commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Soleimani was also a key strategist deemed crucial to Tehran’s efforts to build a network of operatives and proxies to extend Iranian influence throughout the Middle East and beyond. Though officials say that the NYPD has received no specific credible threats, the history of Iranian operatives has raised concerns that New York could be vulnerable to cyber- or other asymmetric attacks, should Tehran order one.
Officials say that within the past two years, the NYPD, in cooperation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has identified and arrested what a senior police officer called three “card-carrying members” of Hezbollah, the Iranian proxy organization that wields major political influence in Lebanon and is designated a terror organization by the United States. “Because we know that they have had sleeper cells here, as well as sympathizers, we must assume there may be more,” said Thomas Galati, head of NYPD intelligence.
John Miller, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for counterterrorism, said that because the NYPD was by now well aware of how Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies operate, he had reached out “very early on” to federal law enforcement through the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, on which some 100 New York cops serve, to explore how, where, and when Tehran might retaliate. “We already know that Soleimani directed the most experienced terrorist organization under his control to study New York City closely for the day the Iranian government decided conditions were right to strike on U.S. soil,” Miller recently wrote in the New York Daily News.
As New York City’s top counterterrorism official, Miller has seen Hezbollah in surveillance action here in New York long before President Donald Trump ordered the strike that killed Soleimani. In June 2017, the NYPD and the FBI announced the arrest of two naturalized Americans from Lebanon who had been recruited and trained to conduct pre-terror surveillance missions. Ali Kourani, then 32, and Samer El Debek, 37, had maintained low profiles and seemed to be leading ordinary lives. But both were accused of being operatives for Hezbollah’s External Security Organization, also known as the Islamic Jihad Organization, an external intelligence and attack-planning component. Kourani, arrested in New York, had “searched for suppliers who could provide weapons for . . . attacks, identified people who could be recruited or targeted for violence, and gathered information about and conducted surveillance of potential targets,” according to court documents. Kourani was also tasked with gathering intelligence on security procedures at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The information that he compiled would have enabled Hezbollah to learn the layout of terminals, locations of surveillance cameras and security personnel, and baggage screening and collection procedures, the court documents state.
Arrested near Detroit, in Livonia, Michigan, El Debek had been trained extensively to use “weapons, explosives, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and machine guns.” He had also carried out operations for Hezbollah in Thailand and Panama. In 2009, he had cleaned up explosive precursors from a house in Bangkok that others, knowing that they were under surveillance, had abandoned. Two years later, in Panama, he had located the U.S. and Israeli embassies, cased security procedures at the Panama Canal to assess its “vulnerabilities” and those of the ships passing through it, and identified stores where explosive precursors could be purchased. He had also “conducted surveillance of potential targets in America, including military and law enforcement facilities in New York City.”
Though seemingly model immigrants, Kourani and El Debek had been recruited by Hezbollah years earlier. Kourani, who had entered the U.S. legally in 2003, had received a B.S. in biomedical engineering in 2009 and a master’s in business administration in 2013. But in 2000, when only 16, he attended his first weapons-training classes in Lebanon. El Debek, who was also naturalized (though court documents don’t say when), had been extensively trained in Lebanon on weapons and explosives starting in 2007 or 2008 and received a Hezbollah salary since then that eventually totaled $1,000 a month, plus medical expenses. FBI bomb technicians said that El Debek’s bomb-making showed “a high degree of technical sophistication.”
El Debek’s case remains pending in New York, but Kourani was found guilty and sentenced last year to 40 years in prison. The lengthy sentence suggests law enforcement’s intense concern about such Hezbollah operatives. As then-NYPD commissioner James P. O’Neill observed following the two arrests, preoperational surveillance is “one of the hallmarks of Hezbollah in planning future attacks.”
Mitchell D. Silber, the NYPD’s former director of intelligence analysis, and Ioan Pop, a former senior intelligence analyst within the NYPD’s counterterrorism division, said that there was no reason to believe that Iran and its proxies had given up gathering such intelligence on vulnerable targets in New York and other cities. “We believe there is a significant reason for extreme vigilance in New York,” Silber and Pop wrote Monday on an Atlantic Council blog. They cited as evidence the 2019 arrest in New York of yet another alleged Lebanese sleeper operative—Alexei Hassan Saab. His report on New York City for Hezbollah contained detailed summaries and photos of such potential targets as the United Nations headquarters, 26 Federal Plaza, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, Rockefeller Center, Wall Street, the New York Stock Exchange, Times Square, the Empire State Building, Herald Square, Macy’s, all of New York’s bridges and tunnel entrances and exits, and New York’s three airports.
Deputy Commissioner Miller wrote that Saab had been meeting regularly with an NYPD detective and an FBI agent, part of what Miller called a “delicate game” where investigators tried to draw information out of him while he tried to learn from them how much they already knew. While seeming to lead a law-abiding life as a software engineer in Morristown, New Jersey, Saab had been returning to Lebanon to give his handlers detailed information about how New York landmarks, critical infrastructure, government buildings, and Israeli targets could be attacked.
Law-enforcement officials told me that the NYPD began conducting what one called a “deep dive” into Hezbollah’s presence in New York in 2008 soon after Iran conducted retaliation attacks following the killing of Hezbollah leader Imad Mugniyah by Israel, with U.S. intelligence assistance. To avenge Mugniyah, Hezbollah plotted retaliatory attacks in Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Turkey, Kuwait, and Cyprus. All but the bombing of an Israeli tour bus in Bulgaria were thwarted.
That same year, Silber said, then-NYPD police commissioner Raymond Kelly sent a counterterror intelligence team to Buenos Aires and the Tri-Border region to meet with Argentine officials to understand better how Hezbollah’s and Iran’s terror worked. In these meetings, Argentinian intelligence officials confirmed that Hezbollah and Iranian intelligence were responsible for the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, an attack that killed 29 and wounded 242—and meant to avenge Israel’s killing of Hezbollah Secretary General Abbas Musawi. Intelligence officials also believed that Iran was involved in an even more lethal attack two years later in the Argentinian capital, home to Latin America’s largest Jewish population: the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center, in which 85 people died and hundreds more were injured. Iran and Hezbollah denied responsibility for the deadliest attack in the country’s history, but in 2015, Argentinian special prosecutor Alberto Nisman publicly accused then-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of having covered up Iran’s role to preserve diplomatic relations. Several days after he made this accusation, he was found dead in his apartment, in circumstances that remain suspicious.
Mounting evidence about and condemnation of Iran’s asymmetrical warfare have not deterred Tehran or its proxies. In 2011, Hezbollah plotted to recruit a Mexican drug gang to bomb a popular Italian restaurant in Washington, in a plot to kill Adel al Jubeir, then the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and later a foreign minister. Information developed by U.S. law and drug enforcement prevented the attack.
And so, when Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned Friday that America would face “harsh retaliation” for the death of Soleimani, U.S law enforcement, and the NYPD in particular, listened carefully. By the weekend, NYPD officers stationed to 14 foreign posts around the world—including in Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Qatar—had filed reports that the department has used to deploy its 36,000 cops most effectively. At a recent press conference, NYPD commissioner Dermot Shea said that the department, which had already intensified security in advance of the Christmas holidays and the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Times Square, and following several hate crimes perpetrated against Jews, has kept its forces on high alert. Of major concern, officials said in interviews on Monday, were potential Iranian cyber-attacks.
Overall, the NYPD is fairly confident that it can manage the Iran threat, a confidence stemming largely from an underlying conviction that Iran probably cannot project terror in the U.S—in Iraq and the Middle East, sure. But the NYPD does not minimize the importance of the preattack surveillance that Iran has persistently carried out. And, as officials like to say, they don’t know what they don’t know. What they do know about Iran’s history gives them enough cause for concern.
Perhaps Ayatollah Khamenei will be deterred by Trump’s threat to bomb up to 52 Iranian sites if Iran kills any Americans. Senior Iranian officials said this weekend that their country’s reprisals would be aimed at military targets. But rhetoric is cheap—and often unreliable—whether in Tehran or on Twitter. The NYPD is taking no chances.
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