It’s My Turn
Besides a better understanding of the operational and logistical relationship between Iranian and Hezbollah personnel on the ground for these two attacks, our team returned from Buenos Aires with two other important takeaways: First, the high priority that the conspirators gave to hitting specifically Jewish and Israeli targets in a third country; and secondly, the strong belief that both of these attacks did not happen in Argentina by accident – rather they were designed to pressure Buenos Aires to resume nuclear cooperation with Iran – something Argentina had backed out from, under American pressure.
So now in 2012, with pressure from the United States and the West over Iran’s nuclear program increasingly escalating, the NYPD must assume that New York City and its plethora of Jewish and Israeli targets could be targeted by Iran or Hezbollah in the event that hostilities break out in the Persian Gulf. Moreover, like Buenos Aires, the presence of Iran’s U.N. mission in New York City allows officials from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence to live and operate in New York with official diplomatic cover.
We believe this is neither an idle nor a new threat. Between 2002 and 2010, the NYPD and federal authorities detected at least six events involving Iranian diplomatic personnel that we struggle to categorize as anything other than hostile reconnaissance of New York City.
The first event occurred in June of 2002 and involved Iranian Mission security guards. The second event occurred at 2 a.m. on November 16, 2003 when uniformed NYPD officers riding a southbound 7 train observed two males filming the subway train tracks. The men, who initially claimed diplomatic immunity, turned out to be security guards at the Iranian Mission who had recently arrived in New York. Despite two warnings from the State Department about this inappropriate behavior, in May 2004, two more Iranian Mission security guards were observed videotaping infrastructure, public transportation and New York City landmarks. One month later, the guards were expelled by the United States for “engaging in activities that were not consistent with their duties” — in other words, spying.
However, this official reprimand was not sufficient and suspicious activities by Iranian diplomatic personnel have continued. In May 2005, six individuals associated with the Government of Iran were interviewed by the NYPD in response to a lead called into the NYC safe hotline. The individuals were on a local sight-seeing cruise, and the captain of the ship deemed their behavior suspicious. The individuals had divided into groups of two, each with a map, while photographing and videotaping NYC landmarks such as the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. They were also reportedly speaking on their cell phones in an unusual manner. Responding to the lead, the NYPD learned that one of the individuals was employed at the Permanent Mission of Iran to the UN, and the other five had diplomatic immunity based on their individual positions within the Iranian government. After sharing the information with federal authorities and conferring with the United Nations Law Enforcement division, the individuals were released without incident.
In September 2008, during the United Nations General Assembly, several members of the Iranian Delegation were observed taking photographs of the MTA railroad tracks inside of Grand Central Station. The NYPD was able to interview three of the individuals, who confirmed that they had been inside the station, but claimed that no photos were taken. One individual produced a camera that contained photos of the Brooklyn Bridge, a location the three had also visited. Again, the information was shared with federal authorities and the individuals were released without incident.
Finally, in September 2010, again during the United Nations General Assembly, Federal Air Marshals observed suspicious behavior at the Wall Street Heliport. Four individuals were taking still photos and videotaping the waterline and structural area of the heliport landing pad from the vehicle parking lot area. According to the Air Marshals, the individuals were not behaving like other tourists at the location. For example, one individual held his camera at waist level while filming, and the footage was focused on the structure of the heliport instead of the actual helicopters coming in and out of the location. In a field interview, all four of the individuals stated they were employed at the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Company (IRIB), and produced UN Press access cards as identification. Information on the subjects was shared with the JTTF/NYC, NYPD Counter Terrorism Bureau and Intelligence Division, and the individuals were released without incident.
Moreover, the Iranian government also has an unofficial presence in New York via the Alavi Foundation, a nonprofit ostensibly devoted to charity works and promoting Islamic culture. In December 2009, Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, described Alavi as having “effectively been a front for the government of Iran.” A contemporaneous complaint filed by Mr. Bharara’s office led to the seizure of Alavi’s assets — including the Islamic Institute of New York, the largest Shiite mosque in the city and the location most closely affiliated with Iran’s U.N. mission.
Hezbollah and its supporters have a presence in New York and the surrounding area as well. Their provision of aid to Hezbollah manifests in a variety of ways for this community of supporters. For example, in 2008, two Staten Island men pleaded guilty to providing material support to Hezbollah for hosting Hezbollah’s satellite television channel, al Manar. In another notable case, 26 people — including a former Brooklyn resident — were indicted in federal court in Philadelphia in 2009 for conspiring to provide material support to the terrorist group by procuring weapons and using proceeds from the sale of fraudulent passports, counterfeit money and stolen money.
In addition, there have been some cases of Lebanese-linked businesses in the tri-state area and elsewhere being implicated in a variety of illegitimate and semi-legitimate business activities, including trademark counterfeiting, car exports, and money-laundering – all believed to be benefiting Hezbollah. The details of a massive money-laundering scheme were revealed in a civil suit filed against several Lebanese financial institutions, including the Lebanese Canadian Bank, last December by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
In light of what we have learned about events in Argentina and elsewhere, we must assume that familial, political, and military links between Hezbollah supporters in New York City and the Hezbollah organization in their towns of origin in Lebanon are robust and dynamic. For example, individuals of concern hail from Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon, including towns like Bint Jbeil, Yaroun, and Yatar, which were the battlefields for Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters in their 2006 war. Some individuals in New York are family members of Hezbollah political leaders or Hezbollah fighters who have been killed, are associates of known ranking members of Hezbollah, or have received military training from Hezbollah in Lebanon. Simply put, the risk that Hezbollah agents from abroad would seek to leverage the local community in New York as facilitators — whether wittingly or not — must be considered.
Given a spate of recent Iranian-linked attacks abroad, the alleged IRGC plot against a foreign diplomat in Washington, Iran’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric, and its long history of sponsoring terror attacks, the NYPD must remain vigilant in attempting to detect and disrupt any attack by Iran or its proxies. Anything less would be abdicating our duty to protect New York City and its residents.