CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — Four relatives were charged in Iowa Tuesday with conspiring to smuggle guns and ammunition to Lebanon that were hidden with equipment exports and supplies for Syrian refugees.
Federal agents intercepted cargo containers in Norfolk in March and in Iowa last week that were bound for Beirut, carrying a total of 152 firearms and 16,000 rounds of ammunition, according to a criminal complaint that was unsealed Tuesday.
The suspects were identified as Ali Herz, 50 and his 22-year-old son, Adam Herz; Ali Herz’s younger brother, Bassem Herz, 29; and Bassam Herz’s wife, Al Sarah Zeaiter, 24. All four live in Cedar Rapids, where they were arrested Tuesday as local, state and federal officers executed search warrants in the city.
Last year the four were successful at hiding the guns and ammo in a container that was taken by truck to Chicago. In Chicago, the container was put on rail and transported to Norfolk International Terminals. It was then loaded onto an unsuspecting container ship that took the guns, ammo, and other supplies to possible terrorists in Beirut, Lebanon.
They tried it again in March, according to the complaint, but investigators were onto them.
The complaint reads, “On March 26, this inspection revealed 53 firearms, firearms parts and accessories, and more than 6,800 rounds of ammunition hidden within three bobcat skid loaders inside the container.”
The criminal complaint states what was seized by federal investigators: “The seized items included a Desert Eagle .50 caliber pistol and .50 caliber AE ammunition.”
Shipping arrangements for that container were made by an employee of Midamar Corporation in Cedar Rapids. The dock receipt from the Norfolk port showed the exporter was Bassem Herz, who also shipped two bobcats along with guns and ammo. His wife Sarah was made to do the dirty work of signing as the shipper of the container.
During initial court appearances Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Linda Reade ordered them jailed, pending a detention hearing set for Friday.
“We believe there is immense risk to public safety,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Rich Murphy.
The four said little in court, where they appeared in street clothes, their wrists handcuffed and legs shackled. Their attorneys declined to comment on the allegations following the hearing.
The complaint says the four came under suspicion as they stockpiled more than $100,000 worth of guns and ammunition legally purchased from dealers in eastern Iowa over the last 17 months. A gun store owner in February expressed concerns to authorities after the group twice purchased all of his store’s 5.7 millimeter ammunition. One of the men also requested accessories for military-style rifles after reviewing a text message written in a foreign language, the owner reported.
On Tuesday, agents searched a pizza shop linked to Bassem Herz; a Cedar Rapids address tied to Adam Herz; and Midamar Corp., a maker of halal foods whose shipping service the alleged conspirators used to transport the firearms.
No one with Midamar was charged in the alleged plot. Midamar attorney Michael Lahammer said company employees were unaware the weapons were in the containers and weren’t involved with packing them. He said a company named in the complaint, Herz Enterprises, contracted with Midamar to use its shipping facility, which is made available to other exporters.
Midamar was “used to facilitate this illegal activity by Herz Enterprises, if what the government says is true,” he said.
The firearms found in March were hidden inside a container that had three skid loaders that were being exported and Midamar boxes marked “Syria” that were filled with clothing, shoes, honey and household supplies.
Midamar made arrangements to ship the container after its founder, Bill Aossey, promoted a clothing drive for Syrian refugees stranded in Lebanon, the complaint says. In an online posting seeking donations, Aossey wrote that the supplies would be added to an equipment container already scheduled for export.
Last week, agents searched a container the suspects had brought to Midamar for shipment that had 99 firearms, over 9,500 rounds of ammunition and firearms parts and accessories that were hidden in skid loaders and inside suitcases and boxes that contained clothing.
The four suspects, who are in the United States legally, are not licensed to sell or export firearms, the complaint says. An earlier shipment wasn’t intercepted, and investigators cannot account for dozens of weapons they purchased.
The Herzes previously caught attention for their ties abroad.
Ali Herz, who was born in Lebanon, had $61,400 in cash on him when he returned to the U.Ss from overseas in December and has sent and received $160,000 in wire transfers over the last two years, the complaint says. Adam Herz, a college student born in the United States, was questioned after returning to the U.S. in 2012 and 2014 from what he said were lengthy visits to Lebanon. Bassem Herz, who was born in Kuwait, has made many trips abroad and previously exported other equipment to Lebanon. Zeaiter said she is a citizen of Lebanon who is a college student.
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