Morristown is a quiet little town in northern New Jersey with a long and notable history. It was once known as the “military capital of the American Revolution”, because George Washington made Morristown his headquarters twice, in the winters of 1777 and 1779. And it was here, in 1838, that Samuel F. B Morse and Alfred Vail built the first telegraph. As of the 2010 census, there were only slightly more than 18,000 people living in Morristown, and, despite its historical significance, Morristown has managed to keep a fairly low profile over the years as a quiet little town known mostly for its history and its desirability as a place to live.
So it was surprising that on Thursday, September 19, 2019, Morristown hit the headlines – and not in a good way. On that day, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York handed down a nine-count indictment against a resident of Morristown for scouting terrorist targets on behalf of the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hizb’allah and its affiliate, the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO).
The indictment against the 42-year-old read that the accused “provided ‘material support and resources’ … to a foreign terrorist organization, to wit Hizb’allah, which has been designated by the Secretary of State as a terrorist organization since 1997”. This support, according to the indictment, included “tangible and intangible property, services, expert advise, and assistance, explosives, and personnel (including himself), knowing that Hizb’allah was a foreign terrorist organization”, and that he “received training in the use of weapons and in the construction and use of explosives from other members of Hizb’allah”.
Also included in the indictment is a charge that he not only committed perjury relating to his association and membership in a foreign terrorist organization, but that he also engaged in a fraudulent marriage, denying that he had entered into the marriage to “evade provisions of the immigration laws”.
Specifically, the list of alleged crimes listed in the indictment included:
- providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization;
- conspiracy to provide material support and resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization;
- receiving military-type training from a designated foreign terrorist organization;
- conspiracy to receive military-type training from a designated foreign terrorist organization;
- unlawful procurement of citizenship or naturalization to facilitate an act of international terrorism;
- marriage fraud conspiracy;
- citizenship application fraud;
- naturalization fraud;
- and making false statements.
That’s a long list for a man who came to this country lawfully in 2000 on a Lebanese passport, applied for citizenship in 2005, and became a naturalized citizen in 2008. But his history is one that should serve as a warning to Americans.
His name is Alexei Saab, or “Ali Hassan Saab”, or “Alex Saab”, or “Rachid”, depending on which alias he was using on a particular day. And his indictment covered them all.
Saab joined Hizb’allah in 1996 in Lebanon. During the years while Saab was waiting to acquire U.S. citizenship, he returned to Lebanon to rejoin Hizb’allah and receive training from the terrorist organization in the use of weapons and the construction and use of explosives. He also received “comprehensive instruction that included triggering mechanisms, explosive substances, detonators, and assembly of circuits among other things”.
In Lebanon, he was assigned to observe and report on the movements of Israeli and Southern Lebanese Army soldiers in Yaroun, Lebanon.
According to officials, while Saab was in Lebanon, he also attempted to murder a suspected Israeli spy. According to the story, he pointed his gun at the man at close range and pulled the trigger twice – but the gun misfired both times.
Once back in the U.S., Saab located in Morristown, apparently got a job, using the name Alex Saab. On his LinkedIn page, he listed himself as Director of Information Technology at Covanta, a waste management company in Morristown, and as Adjunct lecturer at Baruch College in New York City. He also claims two Masters degrees from CUNY and a Bachelor of Engineering degree from The Lebanese University.
But his real job, and what brought him to the U.S. in the first place, was his assignment for Hizb’allah. During the nineteen years he was in the U.S., his real mission was to scout for locations that would be suitable for Hizb’allah attacks in New York, Boston, and Washington. Posing as a tourist, he would travel between the three cities and photograph key landmarks that were suitable targets for terrorist attacks. Among the things that Saab reported back to the IJO, was how close one could get to a particular target, how the target was constructed, and whether there were any structural vulnerabilities that the IJO could exploit. According to the indictment, “Saab focused on the structural weaknesses of locations he surveilled in order to determine how a future attack could cause the most destruction”. He would then send target information back to his handlers in Lebanon.
Saab’s alleged New York City targets included the United Nations headquarters, the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, Times Square, the Empire State Building, the Port Authority, the New York Stock Exchange, the George Washington Bridge, Herald Square, and the local airports and tunnels.
In Boston, his targets included Fenway Park, the Prudential Center, and Quincy Market. And in Washington, D.C., he surveilled the White House, the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol, and the Lincoln Memorial.
The most interesting aspect of this story, from this analyst’s point of view, is the fact that although Saab was carrying out these surveillance operations for many years, nothing beyond the surveillance was ever apparently implemented. And although the IJO was formed to undertaken violent Hizb’allah operations outside of Lebanon, and has, in fact, carried out kidnappings, bombings, and other terrorist attacks over time that have killed several hundred people in other parts of the world, it did not, apparently, attack any of the targets that Saab surveilled in the U.S. Not yet.
This does not mean that America is safe from the terrorist plans of the IJO. But it raises questions about why nothing has happened so far.
The State Department has called Hizb’allah the most technically capable terrorist group in the world. Assistant Attorney General for National Security, John C. Demers said, “Such covert activities conducted on U.S. soil are a clear threat to our national security.” And so they are.
So the saga of the IJO operations in the U.S. is only just beginning to unfold, and maybe some of these questions will be answered as the details of the story continue to reveal themselves.
But this story brings to mind with startling clarity that the lessons of 9/11 should never be forgotten, and that the moment that we Americans begin to let those memories dim in the more comfortable complacency of everyday life, we are more than likely to be rudely awakened by the reality that our enemies have not forgotten.