CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — Four relatives charged with stockpiling weapons in Iowa to ship to Lebanon were making money trafficking arms in a war-torn region and may have ties to Hezbollah, federal investigators said Friday.
The four were arrested this week after agents intercepted shipping containers that had more than 100 guns and 16,000 rounds of ammunition hidden inside construction equipment being exported, along with supplies for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Two of the men had been planning to travel to Lebanon this week, agents said during a court hearing that revealed more details about the suspects and alleged plot.
One key detail remained unclear: who was to receive the shipments after they arrived in Beirut.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Jon Scoles ordered three of those charged — 50-year-old Ali Herz; his son, 22-year-old Adam Herz; and Sarah Zeaiter, 24— to remain in federal custody pending trial. He said they represented a flight risk because of their ties to Lebanon and potential funding sources to get there. The fourth suspect, Bassem Herz, 30, who is Zeaiter's husband, didn't seek release and remains jailed.
Agents said they were still processing a large amount of information seized during searches conducted Tuesday of Cedar Rapids homes and businesses. But they said Ali Herz had long been suspected of ties to Hezbollah in Lebanon and suggested the weapon sales may be linked to the group, which the U.S. government considers a terrorist organization.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Rich Murphy said he wondered "what the connections are" that allowed Ali Herz to own land and a large, ornate home in Lebanon, where he lives part-time.
Several informants have told the FBI that Ali Herz has expressed support for Hezbollah, and a photo of the group's leader appeared on his Facebook page, according to the testimony. Herz's ex-wife told investigators that he was familiar with the group and its leaders, and that she was present when he had a meeting with members in 1992, investigators said.
Ali Herz's lawyer, Anne Laverty, said he had no ties to Hezbollah or any other terrorist groups in the U.S. or abroad, dismissing the implication of terrorist connections as "distraction and scare tactics" based on secondhand information. She said he made his money as a land developer in Lebanon, and was a member of the Republican Party.
Scoles said there was strong evidence the four were illegally shipping guns abroad. He said it was possible the weapons were being sold for profit to Lebanese citizens who want to protect themselves amid turmoil or that they were going to "terrorist organizations for bad purposes."
"I'm not going to speculate" because the evidence isn't clear, he said.
Testimony revealed that the suspects were buying guns and ammunition from Iowa dealers that would sell for up to 10 times the price in Lebanon, where demand for weapons has surged in recent years amid regional instability.
Syria's civil war, now in its fifth year, has killed more than 220,000 people. Shiite fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah have backed the forces of President Bashar Assad. The United Nations says there are about 1.2 million Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon, though Beirut estimates many more.
During a search of the Cedar Rapids apartment where Zeaiter and Bassem Herz live with their 8-month-old child, investigators found $33,000 cash, 14,000 rounds of ammunition and a handwritten ledger showing how much weapons cost in Iowa and Lebanon. The ledger, written by Zeaiter, showed that they expected to bring in $1 million for a shipment that would cost $100,000 to assemble, Murphy said. A Glock pistol that costs $500 in Iowa, for instance, might fetch $4,200 in Lebanon.
"It's quite clear that, at a minimum, these people are selling firearms at a huge, huge profit," Murphy said.
Adam Herz, a dental technician student, and his father were "going over to get the guns and do their business overseas" before their arrests prevented them from traveling to Lebanon as planned this week, he said.
Previous weapons shipments were not intercepted. An investigator testified that Ali Herz said during an interview this week that two shipments brought in $180,000 last year and the one intercepted last week was to bring in $200,000.