…for marrying a non-Muslim. An update on this post from last week, Iowa: 4 Muslims arrested for smuggling guns to Syria in halal food container.
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – The eldest of four Cedar Rapids family members accused of smuggling firearms into Lebanon is a Hezbollah sympathizer who met with reported members of the terrorist group during a trip abroad, federal agents testified Friday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Murphy called six witnesses to paint Ali Afif Al Herz as loyal to the Lebanese-based Shi’ite militant and political organization. The United States is one of several nations that have classified Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
Murphy intended the testimony from agents with the Department of Homeland Security and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to persuade Chief Magistrate Judge Jon Scoles to keep Herz, 50, in county jail while awaiting trial on charges that he and three other family members tried to smuggle hundreds of guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition into Lebanon, hiding it in storage containers.
Defense lawyer Anne Laverty quickly accused Murphy of using “distraction and fear tactics” with no supporting evidence that ties Herz to any terrorist group. Herz came to the United States in 1984 for college and gave up on religion after watching decades of strife in Lebanon and the Middle East, she said.
“He has specifically rejected religion,” she said. “He has no ties to religious extremists here or in Lebanon.”
Authorities on Tuesday jailed Herz; his son, Adam Ben Ali Al Herz, 22; his brother, Bassem Afif Herz, 30; and his brother’s wife, Sarah Majid Zeaiter, 24, on charges of attempting to illegally smuggle firearms into Beirut, Lebanon. An investigation led by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security found the four purchased at least 113 rifles and handguns from Iowa gun stores over a 17-month period.
Staying in jail
In a ruling Friday afternoon, Scoles decided to leave Ali Herz behind bars, along with Herz’s son and sister-in-law, who were also charged. All three have lived for significant periods in Lebanon and could have enough money to flee, he said. There’s “strong evidence” against the family members, and a conviction on the charges could result in a five-year prison sentence, Scoles said.
Bassem Herz, 29, waived a detention hearing and will remain in custody. The men are all U.S. citizens, and Zeaiter is a lawful permanent resident, according to criminal complaints.
The magistrate noted that no evidence produced Friday linked the guns to Hezbollah fighters or other terrorist groups.
Scoles said it is just as possible that the guns were being sent for Lebanese citizens seeking to protect themselves in a country increasingly destabilized by the civil war in neighboring Syria and the threat of the Islamic State group.
“It’s possible that they were intended for terrorist organizations for bad purposes,” Scoles said. “I’m not going to speculate … there’s no evidence to any of that.”
Wearing handcuffs and an orange jail uniform, Ali Herz smiled and waved at family members as he left the courtroom.
Guns hidden in (halal food) containers
On March 26 and May 8 authorities searched shipping containers connected to a company called Herz Enterprises, finding 152 guns and thousands of rounds of ammo hidden inside shipments of Bobcat skid loaders.
The hearing shed new light on the Department of Homeland Security’s investigation into the family, revealing that Ali Herz reportedly confessed after his arrest Tuesday to organizing two shipments of guns to Lebanon in 2014 and another in 2015.
Special agent Daniel Tigges testified that Herz said in an interview that he expected after the third shipment that the group would have netted $380,000 from the smuggling operation.
Tigges said Herz claimed he took half the profits and split the rest with his son, Adam, and brother, Bassem.
“He admitted that he knew it was wrong to ship guns out of the country,” he said.
In front of the packed courtroom, Murphy, the prosecutor, displayed a photo found on Ali Herz’s Facebook page of Hezbollah founding member Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. At another point, he showed a picture of a pristine multi-story house in Lebanon with a neatly manicured lawn that Herz’s defense attorney said he built “brick by brick.”
It’s suspicious that Herz owned a pristine house in a violent country, Murphy said.
“It makes one wonder what the connections are that allows that to go on,” he said. “At a minimum, what is going on here is these people are selling firearms for huge, huge profits.”
Cedar Rapids Police detective John Matias testified about years-old reports authorities took detailing suspicious behavior by Ali and Bassem Herz.
In March 2010, an informant reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation that Bassem Herz asked through Facebook whether the informant could obtain rifles with attached grenade launchers, Matias said. The informant reported that Herz said he wanted the guns to turn a profit.
Dueling portraits of Ali emerged from witnesses and his attorney; one as potentially deadly and another as a hardworking father who spent time volunteering to help displaced Iraqi families resettle in Cedar Rapids.
In 2003, Herz’s now ex-wife, Roberta, was interviewed by federal agents and a Cedar Rapids detective, telling them that in 1992 she saw her husband meet with approximately 10 men at a Lebanese apartment complex owned by Herz’s father while the two visited the country.
She reported that at least two of the men carried “assault-style” rifles during the meeting, Matias said.
“She said afterwards she was told by Ali that they were Hezbollah,” the detective said.
Tigges also testified that Roberta Herz told authorities that Ali threatened to kill their adult daughter after she married a non-Muslim. But on cross-examination from Laverty, Tigges said “to his knowledge” the daughter, who lives in Cedar Rapids, was never questioned about the reported death threat as part of the investigation.
Zeaiter, who listened through headphones to a translator, handled finances for the operation, Murphy said.
When the apartment she and Bassem Herz share was raided Tuesday, authorities found a ledger with firearms, quantities and resale prices written in Zeaiter’s hand. The prosecutor also alleged that Bassem Herz and Zeaiter took their baby along on gun buys as a strategic mask and showed surveillance video of the three together buying firearms at a Scheels All Sports.
“What’s more innocent than a young person with their baby, just coming out to buy guns,” Murphy said.
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