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US imprisons ex-Hezbollah spy for photographing popular landmarks for potential attacks

May 24, 2023 at 6:00 pm

Fighters of the Lebanese movement Hezbollah [ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images]

Authorities in the United States have sentenced to 12 years in prison a man linked to the Iran-backed militant group, Hezbollah, who had reportedly photographed American landmarks for potential attacks.

46-year-old Alexei Saab, a software developer based in New Jersey, was arrested back in 2019 on suspicion of having ties to the Iran-backed and Lebanon-based Hezbollah militant movement, with prosecutors at a trial last year accusing him of being a highly trained terrorist who scoped out landmarks in the US, France, Turkiye and the Czech Republic.

According to those prosecutors, Saab acted as a sleeper cell waiting to become operational within the US if Washington attacked Tehran in a potential conflict. In preparation for such an operation, he reportedly took photographs of and researched weak points in landmarks, particularly in the US, providing the information to Hezbollah.

Those landmarks included the Empire State Building, the World Trade Centre, the Rockefeller Centre, Grand Central Station, along with airports, bridges and tunnels within New York alone.

At the sentencing yesterday, the jury convicted Saab of receiving military-type training from Hezbollah, conspiring to commit marriage fraud and making false statements. It was not able to reach a verdict regarding the charge of Saab gathering material support for a terrorist group, however, and it acquitted him of three other charges.

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The judge, Paul G. Gardephe, noted that the defendant has been cooperative with authorities throughout the investigation and case, fully allowing Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) agents to interview him in 2019, 11 times over four months, with him being able to go home each time until his arrest after his 12th session.

Gardephe revealed that the “facts and circumstances” indicate that Saab no longer posed a danger to the community and that there was little risk he would commit any further crimes. He supported the initial argument that Saab should serve no more than a decade in prison, and asserted that he has become a model prisoner by helping other convicts at New York City’s federal jails to get high school equivalency certificates, learn English and find relief from psychological problems.

According to his defence attorney, Marlon Kirton, Saab had gone through a significant transformation after arriving in the US at the age of 23, as he “began to experience the feeling of true freedom”. He reportedly “loved how Americans lived passionately and fearlessly”, and decided he wanted that. He then became an American citizen by 2005 and obtained two master’s degrees, and still feared Hezbollah but “felt safe in the United States, knowing that the organisation could not touch him”.

Gardephe stated that Saab’s change of heart and the “peaceful and productive” life he lived afterward present “inconvenient facts” that made it impossible to grant the US government’s request that he be incarcerated for 20 years.

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