NEW YORK (AP) — A New Jersey software developer who prosecutors say once photographed landmarks in New York, Boston and Washington, D.C., for possible terrorist attacks was sentenced Tuesday to 12 years in prison by a federal judge who said it seemed he no longer was a danger.
In fact, 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 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.
A jury at a trial last year heard prosecutors portray Saab as a highly trained terrorist who scoped out landmarks in the U.S., France, Turkey and the Czech Republic. Prosecutors said Saab was a sleeper cell waiting to activate if Iran was attacked by the United States.
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 was informed of his rights and arrested after his 12th session. He has been jailed ever since.
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 U.S. 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 World Trade Center, Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Station, and airports, bridges and tunnels were among over 40 locations that Saab surveilled in New York alone.
Defense attorney Marlon Kirton wrote in a presentence 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 U.S. 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.