The New York Police Department has boosted security to thwart potential terrorist attacks following Iran’s threats to punish America for killing its top military general, Qassem Soleimani, in Iraq. 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.
In 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 terror proxy. “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.
The NYPD encountered Hezbollah methods long before President Trump ordered Soleimani’s killing. 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 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 JFK Airport. The information he compiled would have allowed Hezbollah to learn the layout of terminals, locations of cameras and security personnel, and baggage screening and collection procedures, the court documents state.
Arrested near Detroit, in Livonia, Mich., El Debek had allegedly been trained extensively to use “weapons, explosives, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and machine guns,” according to court documents. He had also carried out operations for Hezbollah in Thailand and Panama. In 2009, he 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 allegedly located the US 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. Prosecutors also accuse him of surveilling “potential targets in America, including military and law enforcement facilities in New York.”
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 O’Neill observed following the two arrests, preoperational surveillance is “one of the hallmarks of Hezbollah in planning future attacks.”
Mounting evidence and international condemnation of Iran’s asymmetrical warfare haven’t 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 United States and later a foreign minister. Information developed by US law and drug enforcement prevented the attack.
And so, when Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned Friday that America would face “harsh retaliation” for the death of Soleimani, US 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 news 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 Iran probably can’t project terror in the United States — though, in Iraq and the Middle East, sure. But the NYPD doesn’t minimize the importance of the pre-attack surveillance that Iran has persistently carried out. 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.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Post
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