Reverberations from Soleimani death requires vigilance in NYC

Reverberations from Soleimani death requires vigilance in NYC


Fri, Jan 10, 2020

Reverberations from Soleimani death requires vigilance in NYC

Mitchell Silber and Ioan Pop

New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly (C) takes part in his morning intelligence briefing with the Deputy Commissioner for Counter-terrorism Richard Daddario (R) and Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence David Cohen (L) inside the Executive Command Center at the NYPD headquarters in New York August 5, 2011. The NYPD has worked since 9/11 on a long-term project to permanently increase vigilance in Lower Manhattan and Midtown, home to prominent financial institutions and national landmarks. Picture taken August 5, 2011. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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.

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

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

What drives concerns
about the security implications for New York City are three recent and separate
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
, “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
, “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.

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

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.


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