Hezbollah sleeper who photographed US landmarks for possible attacks gets 12 years

Alexei Saab, 46, also allegedly attempted to shoot dead a man he thought was an Israeli spy, participated in Lebanon bombing that injured Israeli soldier

The Empire State Building in New York City, November 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson, File)
The Empire State Building in New York City, November 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson, File)

NEW YORK — A New Jersey software developer who prosecutors say once photographed landmarks in New York, Boston and Washington, DC, for possible terrorist attacks was sentenced Tuesday to 12 years in prison by a federal judge.

According to the US Justice Department, he once tried to kill a suspected Israeli spy and was involved in a Lebanon bombing that injured at least one IDF soldier.

However, Judge Paul G. Gardephe noted, Alexei Saab, 46, has become a model prisoner since his 2019 arrest, helping others incarcerated at New York City’s federal jails to get high school equivalency certificates, learn English and find relief from psychological problems.

Gardephe called Saab’s 2005 exit from his relationship with the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group’s Islamic Jihad Organization and the “peaceful and productive” life he lived in the New York City area afterward among “inconvenient facts” that made it impossible to grant the government’s request that Saab be incarcerated for 20 years.

According to the Justice Department, the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO), also known as the External Security Organization and “910,” is Hezbollah’s wing “responsible for the planning and coordination of intelligence, counterintelligence, and terrorist activities on behalf of Hezbollah outside of Lebanon.”

A jury at a trial last year heard prosecutors portray Saab as a highly trained terrorist who scoped out landmarks in the US, France, Turkey and the Czech Republic. Prosecutors said Saab was a sleeper cell waiting to be activated if Iran was attacked by the United States.

Alexei Saab (via LinkedIn)

But the jury was unable to reach a verdict on a material support for a terrorist group charge.

It convicted him of receiving military-type training from the Hezbollah organization, conspiring to commit marriage fraud and making false statements. It acquitted the Morristown, New Jersey, resident of three other charges.

At sentencing, the judge also noted that Saab cooperated fully with FBI agents when they asked to interview him in 2019.

He was interviewed 11 times over four months, and each time was allowed to go home, the judge said. He finally was informed of his rights and arrested after his 12th session. He has been jailed ever since.

Hezbollah fighters hold their group’s flags as they parade during a rally to mark Jerusalem Day in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, April 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Gardephe said the “facts and circumstances” suggest Saab was no longer a danger to the community and there was little risk he would commit new crimes.

The judge said there were also “inconvenient facts” against defense arguments that Saab serve no more than a decade in prison.

He noted that Saab, born in poverty-ridden Yaroun, Lebanon, and raised by middle-class parents who were public school teachers, did not stop his affiliation with the Hezbollah organization after he came to the United States in 2000.

Saab took photographs of and researched weak points in US landmarks and provided the information to “one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world,” Gardephe said.

Prosecutors said the Empire State Building, the Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Station, and airports, bridges and tunnels were among over 40 locations that Saab surveilled in New York alone.

According to a Justice Department statement, Saab first joined Hezbollah in 1996 and initially conducted operations observing Israeli and its allied South Lebanese Army movements in the country.

Along with his brother, he planted an improvised explosive device that hit Israeli soldiers, seriously injuring at least one of them, the statement said without specifying when the attack happened.

In 1999 Saab began training from Hezbollah in firearms and grenades, the Justice Department said. In 2000 he moved to the group’s Islamic Jihad Organization, which conducts operations outside of Lebanon.

His reporting from the US to IJO included structural weaknesses of locations to determine how they could best be targeted. He was also tasked by Hezbollah with opening a front company that would be used to obtain fertilizers for use as explosives in the US.

The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree stands lit at Rockefeller Center during the 89th annual Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony, December 1, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

In or around 2003, outside of the US, Saab also tried to kill a man he suspected of being an Israeli spy, pointing a gun at him and pulling the trigger twice, though the weapon failed to fire. The statement did not say in which country the incident happened.

Defense attorney Marlon Kirton wrote in a pre-sentence brief that his client went through a transformation after arriving in America as he “began to experience the feeling of true freedom.”

He said Saab was 23 years old and “loved how Americans lived passionately and fearlessly” and he decided he wanted that for himself. The lawyer portrayed his client as a victim of Hezbollah.

By 2005, he became a US citizen and obtained two master’s degrees. He decided that “while he still feared Hezbollah, he felt safe in the United States, knowing that the organization could not touch him,” Kirton wrote.

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