by Susan Katz Keating
Federal investigators are checking prison logs to see if anyone has visited a Lebanese man who staked out key New York landmarks and who previously planted a bomb in Israel, a security source told Soldier of Fortune.
The prisoner, Alexei Saab, is an explosives expert who was convicted in May 2022 of charges related to his membership in Hezbollah, a designated foreign terrorist group. He was found guilty of receiving military-type training from a designated foreign terrorist organization; marriage fraud conspiracy; and making false statements, the U.S. Justice Department said.
“There is renewed interest in seeing if anyone contacted this guy, in light of heightened concerns about homeland security,” the source said.
The concerns center on what FBI Director Christopher Wray called a “sharp uptick in threats” since Hamas launched a series of terror attacks on Israel beginning October 7.
“We cannot and do not discount the possibility that Hamas or other foreign terrorist organizations could exploit the conflict to call on their supporters to conduct attacks here on our own soil,” Wray told American Jewish leaders on Thursday.
Attacks on the homeland likely would come from sleeper cells whose members have done advance work to select their targets, the security source said – hence the renewed interest in Saab and his associates.
“The evidence at trial showed that Saab surveilled some of New York’s most iconic and highly trafficked locations, such as the U.N. headquarters, Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, Times Square, the Empire State Building, and local airports, tunnels, and bridges— in order to provide critical intelligence on how they could be most effectively attacked,” according to U.S. Attorney Damian Williams.
Saab could be viewed by Hezbollah as retaining information that would be deemed helpful to cell members, the security source said.
“This is not to say he has information, or that he’s been contacted by Hezbollah,” the source said. “But if he has, we want to delve into that.”
Saab, 47, is known within the federal prison system as Inmate 87009-054. He is being held inside a low security prison in Loretto, Pennsylvania.
During a May hearing to sentence Saab, a federal judge announced that Saab no longer was a danger. Saab had been a model prisoner while awaiting trial, said Judge Paul G. Gardephe, who noted that the incarcerated man had been helpful to other prisoners.
Prosectors, however, portrayed a man who was a highly trained terrorist who scoped out high profile targets in France, Turkey and the Czech Republic. Saab was part of a sleeper cell waiting to activate if the United States attacked Iran, prosecutors said.
READ MORE about the tunnels of terrorism in Israel and Gaza
Saab joined Hezbollah in 1996, the Justice Department said. His first Hezbollah operations took place in Lebanon, where he was tasked with observing and reporting on the movements of Israeli and Southern Lebanese Army soldiers in Yaroun, Lebanon. Saab reported on patrol schedules and formations, procedures at security checkpoints, and the vehicles used by soldiers, the Justice Department said. Alongside his brother, Saab also planted an improvised explosive device that detonated and hit Israeli soldiers, seriously injuring at least one.
Around 1999, Saab attended his first Hezbollah training. The training focused on the use of firearms. Saab handled and fired an AK-47, an M16 rifle, a pistol, and threw grenades.
In 2000, Saab transitioned to membership in Hezbollah’s unit responsible for external operations, the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO). The unit is also known as the External Security Organization and “910,” and plans the intelligence, counterintelligence, and terrorist activities on behalf of Hezbollah outside of Lebanon.
While serving with the IJO, Saab received extensive training in tradecraft, weapons, and military tactics, such as how to build and detonate bombs and how to best use them. Saab received detailed instruction in triggering mechanisms, explosive substances, detonators, and circuit assembly.
In 2000, Saab entered the United States. He continued to receive military training in Lebanon, and conducted numerous operations for the IJO. Saab surveilled dozens of locations in New York City—including the United Nations headquarters, the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, Times Square, the Empire State Building, and local airports, tunnels, and bridges—and provided detailed information on these locations, including photographs, to the IJO.
Saab focused on the structural weaknesses of locations he surveilled in order to determine how a future attack could cause the most destruction. Saab’s reporting to the IJO included the materials used to construct a particular target, how close someone could get to a target, and site weaknesses or “soft spots” that the IJO could exploit. Saab conducted similar intelligence gathering in a variety of large American cities, including Boston and Washington, D.C.
Saab was tasked by Hezbollah with opening a front company that he could use to obtain fertilizer in the United States for use as an explosives precursor.
In addition to his attack-planning activities in the United States, Saab conducted operations abroad. For example, in or about 2003, Saab tried to murder a man he later understood to be a suspected Israeli spy. Saab pointed a firearm at the man at close range and pulled the trigger twice, but the weapon did not fire. Saab also conducted surveillance in Istanbul, Turkey, and elsewhere.
Finally, in or about 2012, Saab entered into a fraudulent marriage in exchange for $20,000. The purpose of the marriage was for Saab’s purported wife to apply for her citizenship. Saab later falsely affirmed, under penalty of perjury, that the marriage was not for any immigration-related purposes.
Hezbollah is a Lebanon-based Shia Islamic organization. It was founded in the 1980s with support from Iran. Its mission includes establishing a fundamentalist Islamic state in Lebanon. Hezbollah has been responsible for terrorist attacks that have killed hundreds, including United States citizens and military personnel.
In 1997, the U.S. Department of State designated Hezbollah a Foreign Terrorist Organization, and it remains so designated today.
The security source did not tell Soldier of Fortune whether any members of Hezbollah or the IJO were found to have maintained contact with Saab while he is in prison.
Saab is scheduled to be released on October 25, 2029.
Susan Katz Keating is the publisher and editor in chief of Soldier of Fortune.