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Contraband
10/31/2016

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Iowa man sentenced to 28 ½ years in federal prison for conspiracy to smuggle guns to Lebanon

3 others sentenced or awaiting sentencing
Iowa man sentenced to 28 ½ years in federal prison for conspiracy to smuggle guns to Lebanon
Ali Al Herz’s residence in Lebanon
Left: Seized contraband - Right: Ali Al Herz’s residence in Lebanon

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — A central Iowa man was sentenced in federal court Monday to 342 months in prison for his role in a scheme to illegally export hundreds of firearms to Lebanon.

This sentence resulted from an investigation by the following agencies:  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI); the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); the FBI; the Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), and numerous Iowa law enforcement agencies (a complete list of participating agencies is at the end of this release).

Ali Afif Al Herz, 51, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, previously pleaded guilty to multiple counts that included the following crimes:

  • conspiring to deal in firearms without a license,
  • conspiring to illegally ship firearms in interstate and foreign commerce,
  • conspiring to commit money laundering,
  • violating the Arms Export Control Act, and
  • possessing firearms after having previously been convicted of a crime of domestic violence.
“We are especially thankful to the citizens of Iowa who assisted law enforcement by providing tips and leads that resulted in an investigation of an international weapons smuggler by Homeland Security Investigations,” said Alex Khu, special agent in charge for HSI St. Paul, which oversees Iowa. “This investigation exemplifies the importance of maintaining strong ties to the communities that law enforcement serves, and that law-abiding citizens can truly make a difference by reporting suspicious activities. Had law enforcement not intervened, Mr. Al Herz would have exported a large number of weapons that could have been used in countless crimes. HSI is committed to investigating and seeking charges against those intent on violating U.S. export laws.”

Al Herz and three co-conspirators were arrested in May 2015 following tips received from a local firearms dealer about suspicious transactions conducted by the group. The tip launched an investigation and led to executing search and arrest warrants at multiple locations in rural Iowa, where authorities found large quantities of firearms in various stages of being shipped illegally outside the country.

The other arrests included:

  • Adam Al Herz, Al Herz’s son, who was sentenced Oct. 13, 2016, to serve 240 months’ imprisonment, which will be followed by a three-year term of supervised release.
  • Sarah Majid Zeaiter, Al Herz’s sister in law, who was sentenced Oct. 14 to serve 87 months’ imprisonment. Zeaiter was also ordered to relinquish $33,869 in cash related to the scheme. The money was seized from the apartment Zeaiter shared with her husband, Bassem Herz, above the Pizza Daddy restaurant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
  • Bassem Afif Herz, Zeaiter’s husband, who was convicted May 24 via plea agreement, and is scheduled to conclude a sentencing hearing Nov. 7, 2016.

Each of the three previously sentenced defendants has also been jointly and severally ordered to pay a money judgment in excess of $48,000, and to forfeit any interest in seized firearms, ammunition and Bobcat skid loaders.

The initial investigation led to the March 2015 seizure of 53 guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition concealed inside Bobcat skid loaders packed inside a shipping container at the Norfolk, Virginia, seaport. The container was destined for Lebanon. Subsequent investigation led to the May 2015 seizure of a second shipping container in Cedar Rapids, which was also destined for Lebanon.

Ninety-nine guns and thousands more rounds of ammunition were found concealed inside Bobcat skid loaders packed inside the second container. Further investigation determined that the group had previously sent two similar shipments to Lebanon in March and August 2014. Each of the containers had been loaded and shipped from Midamar Corporation in Cedar Rapids.

Evidence presented at the sentencing hearings showed the containers were destined for an area in southern Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah, a group designated by the United States as a terrorist organization. Among the guns shipped were more than 30 military-style assault rifles.

Other evidence presented in the case showed the guns could be sold in Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon, where Ali Afif Al Herz maintains a residence, for as much as 10 times their value in the United States.

Kevin W. Techau, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, stated, “These defendants were bold and brazen gun traffickers. They knew they were violating U.S. laws enacted to prevent smuggling to foreign countries. Stopping the illegal flow of weapons, weapons parts, and ammunition is a key priority for law enforcement.”

“Among ATF’s top priorities is ensuring that firearms traffickers are aggressively investigated and swiftly brought to justice. This is an excellent example of such an investigation that was worked cooperatively by multiple partner agencies with outstanding results,” said Jeff Fulton, special agent in charge of ATF’s Kansas City Field Division.

“The joint effort to bring this case to a successful conclusion undoubtedly saved lives due to the number and types of weapons recovered during the course of the investigation. The FBI will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to combat violent criminal activity and protect our communities,” stated Special Agent-in-Charge Randall Thysse, Omaha Division.

These cases were prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard L. Murphy. They were investigated by the following agencies: Homeland Security Investigations, ATF, FBI, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The following agencies also provided assistance:  the Diplomatic Security Service, U.S. Marshals Service, Iowa State Patrol, Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, Iowa Bureau of Investigation and Identity Protection, Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals; the Iowa sheriffs’ offices of Fayette, Iowa and Linn counties; and the Iowa police departments of Vinton, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Marion and Hiawatha. 

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Last Reviewed/Updated: 11/02/2016