DEARBORN — A Dearborn man whose home was raided by the FBI on June 1 was arrested in Livonia later that night on suspicion of links to Hezbollah, a U.S. designated terrorist organization, the Justice Department announced on Thursday, June 8.
Both Samer El Debek, a Lebanese American truck driver who moved to Michigan from New York a year ago, and Ali Kourani, a resident of the Bronx, appeared before the Manhattan Federal Court on charges of providing material support to Hezbollah, receiving weapons training and conducting reconnaissance missions for the party’s foreign intelligence unit, the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO).
“Recruited as Hezbollah operatives, Samer El Debek and Ali Kourani allegedly received military-style training, including in the use of weapons like rocket-propelled grenade launchers and machine guns for use in support of the group’s terrorist mission,” said Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim.
El Debek, 37, was transported to New York the day after his arrest in Michigan.
Both El Debek and Kourani appeared before the Manhattan Federal Court on Monday, June 5, where they were charged with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, a penalty of up to 20 years in prison, and of receiving military training from a terrorist organization, a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. He was also charged with conspiracy to receive military training and conspiracy to provide material support, which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison or a fine.
The two suspects also faced charges of possessing, carrying and using firearms and destructive devices during and in relation to crimes of violence, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison; making and receiving a contribution of funds, goods and services to and from Hezbollah, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison; and conspiracy to make and receive a contribution of funds, goods and services to and from Hezbollah, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
However, the sentencing will ultimately be determined by a judge and the maximum potential sentences in this case are prescribed by Congress.
Both were denied bond.
“Recruited as Hezbollah operatives, Samer El Debek and Ali Kourani allegedly received military-style training, including in the use of weapons like rocket-propelled grenade launchers and machine guns for use in support of the group’s terrorist mission.”
Allegations against El Debek
El Debek is a naturalized U.S. citizen and was first recruited by Hezbollah in late 2007 or early 2008, during which he allegedly received military training in Lebanon on several occasions and began to receive a salary from the organization, according to the DOJ.
The DOJ said he 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.
FBI bomb technicians assessed that El Debek received extensive training as a bomb maker. In 2010, he received an email listing raw materials that could be sent from Syria or Dubai, of items often used in explosives and improvised explosive devices.
El Debek also allegedly conducted missions for Hezbollah in Thailand and Panama. In May 2009, he traveled from Lebanon to Thailand, through Malaysia, where his mission was to clean up chemicals used to create explosives in a house in Bangkok that others had left because they were under surveillance.
He used his U.S. passport to enter and leave Thailand so he could travel from Malaysia to Thailand without obtaining a visa.
El Debek traveled to Panama in 2011 and early 2012, where his mission was to locate U.S. and Israeli embassies and to assess the vulnerabilities of the Panama Canal and ships there. He was also tasked with locating hardware stores where explosive agents could be purchased.
He told the FBI that he was detained by Hezbollah from December 2015 to April 2016 and falsely accused of spying for the United States.
Allegations against Kourani
Kourani was born in Lebanon and attended Hezbollah-sponsored weapons training there in 2000 when he was about 16-years-old. After lawfully entering the U.S. in 2003, Kourani obtained a bachelor of science degree in biomedical engineering in 2009 and a master’s of business administration in 2013.
He was subsequently recruited to join the IJO in 2008. He became a naturalized citizen and was issued a passport in April 2009.
Kourani was assigned an IJO mentor, responsible for providing him with tasks and debriefings and arranging training. Kourani sometimes communicated with his mentor using coded emails, including messages asking him to return to Lebanon. The IJO also provided him with additional training in tradecraft, weapons and tactics. In 2011, for example, Kourani attended an IJO military training camp in Lebanon, where he was provided with military tactics and weapons training, including training in the use of a rocket propelled grenade launcher, an AK-47 assault rifle, an MP5 submachine gun, a PKS machine gun (a Russian-made belt-fed weapon), and a Glock pistol.
Kourani also conducted operations that included searching for weapons suppliers in the U.S. who could provide firearms to support IJO operations, identifying individuals affiliated with the Israeli Defense Force, gathering information regarding operations and security at U.S. airports and elsewhere and surveilling U.S. military and law enforcement facilities in Manhattan and Brooklyn, according to DOJ.
The raid in Dearborn
A large FBI squad stormed El Debek’s unit in a duplex on Jonathon Street in Dearborn on June 1 at around 5 p.m. and closed off the street while agents meticulously searched the property.
Several agents hauled dozens of small to mid-sized boxes from the home. Inside were more than 90 sparkling birthday candles and several high-powered fireworks. They also seized phones, an iPad and his U.S. passport.
The FBI initially said it was conducting an operation related to a “national security issue.”
El Debek’s wife, his two young daughters and an elderly relative left with FBI agents for about an hour before returning home at around 10 p.m. that night.
That night, The AANews spoke to neighbors living on either side of the house, who say they were shocked and terrified, especially as agents forced everybody to stay inside their homes.
They also said the family kept to themselves and didn’t say much when greeted by neighbors.
The AANews also attempted to speak to the family, but they turned off all the lights and did not answer the door.
El Debek lived in New York and left eight years ago for Lebanon. He returned last year to New York and later settled in Dearborn about 10 months ago.
A source close to his family deny any wrongdoing. He is described as a committed family man and hardworking truck driver. The source added that the high-powered fireworks do not belong to him, but to his neighbor with whom he shares a garage.
“Everyone should have a little patience and see how the facts unfold,” the source told The AANews. “Time will show you that this is complex scenario about a good person who should not be judged only on the word of the FBI. There are many rumors flying around; they are false. There was nothing illegal found anywhere in the home searched.”
On Thursday, June 8, David Gelios, the FBI special agent in charge of the Detroit office said in a statement regarding the raid that, “Last week’s arrest related to alleged illegal activity which did not occur in Michigan. FBI Detroit has no credible information to suggest any terrorism threat to the Metropolitan Detroit area. That said, we urge the public to remain vigilant and to report suspicious activity to your local law enforcement agency or to the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force of the Detroit Field Office at 313-965-2323.”