Much attention has been focused on aggressive military actions attributed to Iran in the Persian Gulf region in recent weeks, as well as those of its proxies in other areas of the Middle East. An indictment and a criminal complaint unsealed Sept. 19 in New York, however, serve as a reminder of the asymmetric capabilities Iran and its proxies can tap into to respond to its adversaries, including terrorist tactics.
The relationship between the United States and Iran has been tense since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, but there have been periods of heightened tension such as the 1987-88 tanker war. During these times, Iran has become very aggressive, not only in terms of direct military conflict, but also through its proxy groups, and the use of terrorism. Amid the current standoff, Iran’s terrorism capability requires greater attention.
Increasing U.S. sanctions in the wake of its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has choked off most of Iran's oil exports, the country's chief revenue stream. In a bid to force Washington to reconsider its course, Iran has ramped up its use of force, threatening global oil production by attacking key chokepoints in the Persian Gulf and on the Arabian Peninsula.
The Force Spectrum
When considering the threat Iran poses, it is important to examine its full spectrum of military capabilities. Beyond the ability of Iran's military units (the Artesh) to execute conventional warfare operations, its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) possesses considerable knowledge of conventional and asymmetrical tactics. Added to that are the insurgent and hybrid abilities demonstrated by its militant proxies, including Hezbollah, the Houthis and some Iraqi popular mobilization units. Iran's offensive capabilities also extend beyond the physical world to the cyber domain. And, as history has shown, Iran has also pursued terrorism as a tool to achieve its objectives, with numerous examples showing the global reach of such activities, whether committed directly by the country's agents or through its array of proxies.
The United States has classified the IRGC as a terrorist organization, saying it "participates in, finances and promotes terrorism." Partial justification for this classification came from the 2011 IRGC plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States on U.S. soil. Iran's terrorist ambitions span the globe: An Iranian operative was arrested in connection with a disrupted terrorist plot in Denmark in October 2018. In July 2018, German authorities arrested an Austrian-based Iranian diplomat on charges of plotting a terrorist bombing in Paris.
Officers with the IRGC and Iranian intelligence agencies have long been involved in efforts to help proxies conduct terrorist attacks in a number of countries, including Bulgaria, Argentina, India, Georgia and Thailand, among others. Iran also has a long history of training and equipping terrorist proxies in the Middle East, including Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon. That proxy influence, as the charges recently unveiled in New York attest, also extends to U.S. soil.
An Arrest in New York
On Sept. 19, the office of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York released a criminal complaint and a nine-count indictment against Ali Hassan Saab, a 42-year-old Lebanese-American man living in Morristown, New Jersey. Five of the charges relate to Saab's involvement with and support for Hezbollah, and four stem from an alleged marriage fraud scheme. In the detailed criminal complaint, which had been filed under seal on July 8, the government laid out Saab's long history of interactions with Hezbollah.
The Lebanese group reportedly recruited Saab in 1996 while he was attending university in Beirut and tasked him with returning to his hometown of Yaroun, which is located on Lebanon's border with Israel. While in Yaroun, Saab received orders to gather tactical intelligence on the Israeli military and the South Lebanon army, including force posture, equipment, patrol schedules, checkpoint procedures and the like. In 1999, the indictment alleges, Saab attended a Hezbollah military training course that included rudimentary subjects such as handling small arms and hand grenades. In November 2000, Saab moved to the United States — but not before his Hezbollah handler established a covert communication method. If Hezbollah needed Saab to return to Lebanon, he would receive a coded email that would appear to be spam to the outside world. He also received a phone number to call upon his return and received instructions to send a numerical code to signal he was ready to meet with his handler.
From 2000 to 2005, Saab returned several times to Lebanon, where he received additional training in terrorist tradecraft, including subjects such as conducting and detecting surveillance. In 2003, at the request of his handler, he reportedly surveilled several high-profile potential targets in New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston, including bridges, tunnels, large buildings and airports. On his trips back to Lebanon, he provided reports on the locations, including photographs, to his handler. These missions may have been a test to see how well he both followed orders and absorbed surveillance training.
Because Saab was apparently so desperate for money that he became involved in a marriage fraud scheme, we can deduce that Hezbollah was not supporting him as a sleeper agent inside the United States.
In January 2005, Saab went to Istanbul, where his handlers instructed him to familiarize himself with the city and prominent potential targets, such as tourist sites and bridges over the Bosporus. This trip to conduct surveillance in an unfamiliar city in a third country appears to have been the next step in his terrorist tradecraft training. Following his surveillance trip to Istanbul, Saab attended explosives training in Lebanon, during which he learned how to make small, improvised devices such as sticky bombs, a booby-trapped briefcase and a type of mortar launcher. It's worth noting that none of the devices would have been very well suited to an attack against the types of large structures he had surveilled in 2003.
The complaint also contains an interesting account in which Saab claims he attempted to kill an Israeli agent during his 2005 trip to Lebanon. As Hezbollah continued putting Saab through his tradecraft training program, they assigned him the task of stealing a car. A few days later, Saab's instructor took him for a ride in the car. They pulled up behind a van parked in a field, and the instructor handed Saab a silenced pistol and ordered him to walk up to the vehicle and shoot the man sitting inside. Saab claimed that he attempted to do so but that the pistol misfired twice. From his description of this series of events, it would appear that rather than a genuine assassination operation, the incident had been staged to test Saab's obedience and his willingness to kill.
In April 2005, Turkish authorities stopped Saab as he was traveling from Lebanon back to the United States through Istanbul after an airport security check indicated traces of explosives on his clothes and luggage. After Saab underwent questioning and a thorough search of his belongings in Turkey, he was permitted to travel to the United States, where he faced additional questioning by FBI agents upon his arrival.
Hezbollah Cuts Ties
Although Hezbollah had invested a great deal of time and effort in recruiting and training Saab, those interactions with security forces appear to have been enough to cause the group to cut ties with him. The indictment and complaint contain no indication that Saab had contact with Hezbollah after the conclusion of his 2005 trip. Perhaps Hezbollah's leaders feared that the FBI would persuade him to turn on the group. Despite his interaction with the FBI, Saab applied for U.S. citizenship in 2005 and was naturalized in 2008.
In 2012, the U.S. complaint alleges, Saab agreed to enter into a sham marriage with a French citizen. In return for helping the woman gain U.S. citizenship through the fraudulent relationship, Saab would be paid $25,000. It appears as if an investigation into the marriage fraud case tipped off the authorities to Saab's Hezbollah links. Agents from the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force interviewed Saab 11 times between March and his arrest in July. Since Saab was indicted, it is safe to assume that either he rejected government efforts to entice him to cooperate against Hezbollah, or that he agreed to cooperate, but the group spurned his efforts to contact them again.
Because Saab was apparently so desperate for money that he became involved in a marriage fraud scheme, we can deduce that Hezbollah was not supporting him as a sleeper agent inside the United States. Although he'd received only a limited amount of tradecraft training, a U.S. citizen with even rudimentary terrorism skills would represent a valuable asset for a militant organization, not only for operations inside the United States, but also for operations abroad. This makes it difficult to imagine that if Hezbollah had really intended to continue to use him, it would have allowed him to engage in petty criminal activity — or would have totally cut communications with him in 2005.
This case does, however, raise some interesting questions. First, if Saab was desperate enough to commit marriage fraud for cash, how would he have responded to a lucrative offer from Hezbollah or the IRGC to conduct an attack, had they approached him? Second, how many others are there like Saab around the globe who have been trained in terrorist tradecraft, but who have not attracted the attention of authorities and are able to continue to actively work with Hezbollah?