A scout for the militant group Hezbollah was looking at locations for attacks in New York, Boston and Washington and sending target information back to leadership in Lebanon, federal prosecutors said.
They unveiled a nine-count indictment in Manhattan Federal Court on Thursday against Alexei Saab of Morristown, New Jersey, who has been in custody since July 9 after being brought in by members of the NYPD and FBI. The government alleges that Saab has been a Hezbollah member since 1996 and has extensive firearms and bomb-making training.
Among Saab's dozens of alleged New York City targets, prosecutors said, were the George Washington Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Herald Square and the local airports and tunnels.
He also surveiled targets in Boston and Washington, including Fenway Park and the Washington Monument.
"Today’s announcement highlights the persistent efforts of a sophisticated international terrorist organization to scout targets at home and abroad, identifying vulnerabilities, and gathering essential details useful for a future attack," said FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William Sweeney said. "In the city that never sleeps, neither do the FBI agents, detectives, and analysts who work on the JTTF to protect it, and because of their work, Saab’s future surveillances will be limited to a cell."
Saab, 42 and a naturalized U.S. citizen since 2008, faces charges of providing material support and receiving military training from a foreign terrorist organization, procuring citizenship to facilitate an act of terrorism, as well as conspiracy and fraud charges.
A 33-page complaint, sealed since July 8, includes a variety of photos — taken on a cellphone in 2003 — of sensitive locations taken by Saab around the country.
"In particular, (Saab) focused on the structural weaknesses of locations he surveilled in order to determine how a future attack could cause the most destruction," the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office said in a statement.
Prosecutors allege the photos were gathered for the benefit of the Islamic Jihad Organization, or IJO, Hezbollah's external terrorism arm. While Hezbollah has never been linked to any terror attacks in the United States, the IJO was behind the bombing of a bus carrying Israeli tourists in Bulgaria that killed six and injured 32. Two other IJO operatives were arrested and charged in the Southern District of New York in 2017.
Saab reported back to the IJO with details of what the alleged targets were constructed of, how close in proximity one could get, and weaknesses or "soft spots" the group could exploit in a potential attack.
Aside from his scouting of locations, Saab also conducted other criminal operations abroad, including the attempted murder of a man he believed to be an Israeli spy, according to prosecutors. He pulled a gun on a man at close range and tried to fire twice, but the weapon malfunctioned.
"Even though Saab was a naturalized American citizen, his true allegiance was to Hizballah, the terrorist organization responsible for decades of terrorist attacks that have killed hundreds, including U.S. citizens and military personnel," U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said.
Though the complaint was just unveiled Thursday, law enforcement executed search warrants on Saab's email accounts in April 2018 and began interviewing him as far back as March 2019.
"Saab operated in the streets of New York as a covert operative for Hizballah, gathering intelligence and sizing up targets for potential attacks on US soil," NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill said. "This case brings us another important piece of the puzzle in our long term investigations into the terrorist groups targeting New York City. I commend the teamwork of the NYPD detectives, FBI agents and all the partner agencies in the Joint Terrorism Task Force."
In addition to the charges related to his support for militant group, Saab also faces unrelated marriage fraud charges. According to the indictment, he was offered $20,000 to marry a woman so that she could get her U.S. citizenship. The pair had recently discussed ending the arrangement because the woman had yet to recieve her citizenship, the criminal complaint read.
If convicted of all the charges he faces, Saab would face spending the rest of his life in prison. Attempts to reach an attorney for Saab were unsuccessful.