A Lebanese citizen has been charged in a one-count Indictment filed in the Northern District of Iowa for conspiring to ship guns to Lebanon from Cedar Rapids.
Fadi Yassine, 42, was arrested on February 5th in NYC as he entered the United States from Lebanon. Yassine was arrested on warrant from the Northern District Court of Iowa on a criminal complaint charging him with violation of the Arms Export Control Act. Officials say he made an initial appearance in Cedar Rapids federal court earlier this week.
The indictment alleges Yassine and others conspired to send firearms to Lebanon from Cedar Rapids on four occasions during 2014 and 2015.
According to an affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint, Yassine purchased guns in Lebanon that had been acquired in the United States. The guns were then shipped to Lebanon by Ali Herz, Adam Al-Herz, Bassem Herz, and Sarah Majid Zeaiter.
Yassine also purportedly communicated via Facebook from Lebanon with Bassem Herz in the United States to provide direction concerning which firearms to purchase. The affidavit also states that Yassine gave $30,000 cash to Ali Herz in Lebanon to be used to acquire more guns in the United States.
Raids as local and federal officials fanned out across the city to search the Pizza Daddy restaurant, 1539 First Ave. SE, the Midamar Corporation, 1105 60th Ave. SW, and other locations linked to the defendants.
One of the locations raided was the Midamar Corporation, which bills itself as a leading U.S.-based Halal food brand.
Earlier this year, according to a Facebook post and court records, the company held a clothing drive to collect items for “refugees from Syria and the region stranded in Lebanon.”
Mike Lahammer, an attorney for Midamar, said in an interview that no employee of the company had any knowledge of weapons or ammunition being sent there.
Midamar contracts with others like Herz Enterprises — referred to in the complaint — who use its export services.
“Midamar is not responsible for bill of lading … they don’t check the containers,” Lahammer said. “That’s Herz’s and others’ responsibility. It’s using Midamar’s shipping resources, but the individual companies using the services are responsible for certifying the contents to comply with export laws.”
Midamar was responsible only for goods associated with the clothing drive it had organized.
In the same container, clothing, shoes, honey, household supplies and a piano were found. Some boxes had “Midamar” branding and had “Syria” written on them, the records show.
The firearms had been removed from their original packaging and some were placed in plastic bags similar to “if not the same as” bags used by the Pizza Daddy store, court documents show.
The shipping arrangements for the container were made by an employee of Midamar, the court records show. But the dock receipt listed the exporter as Elissar Inc., 1536 First Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids.
According Iowa Secretary of State records, Elissar was incorporated in 2008 and operates under the name of Pizza Daddy, which is owned by Maitham Herz, a brother of two of the defendants.
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 disclosed 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 ten times their value in the United States.
Photos of some of the weapons and ammunition seized during the investigation.
During sentencing, Chief Judge Reade found Al Herz was a leader and organizer of the criminal activity involving five or more participants and that “was otherwise extensive.” Judge Reade also noted there were several aggravating factors including that the offense involved numerous military style assault rifles, the defendant had sought to purchase fully automatic weapons, the number of guns involved, and the fact the guns were knowingly being shipped to an area of the world controlled by a terrorist organization.
Kevin W. Techau, United States 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.”
The four people, 31-year-old Bassem Herz, his wife Sarah Zeaiter, his father Ali Al Herz, and Ali’s son Adam Herz were all sentenced to prison for illegally shipping the guns to Lebanon.