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 Hizballah's External Security Organisation (ESO)

This statement is based on publicly available information about Hizballah's External Security Organisation (ESO). To the Australian Government's knowledge, this information is accurate, reliable and has been corroborated by classified information where available.

Name of the organisation

Hizballah’s External Security Organisation (ESO).

Known aliases

  • External Security Organisation
  • External Security Organization
  • External Services Organisation
  • External Services Organization
  • Foreign Action Unit
  • Hezballah ESO
  • Hezballah International
  • Hezbollah ESO
  • Hezbollah International
  • Hisbollah ESO
  • Hisbollah International
  • Hizballah ESO
  • Hizballah International
  • Hizbollah ESO
  • Hizbollah International
  • Hizbullah ESO
  • Hizbullah International
  • Islamic Jihad Organisation
  • Revolutionary Justice Organisation
  • Special Operations Branch
  • Unit 910. 

Legislative basis for listing a terrorist organisation 

Division 102 of the Criminal Code Act 1995 (the Criminal Code) provides that for an organisation to be listed as a terrorist organisation, the Minister for Home Affairs must be satisfied on reasonable grounds that the organisation:

  1. is directly or indirectly engaged in, preparing, planning, assisting in or fostering the doing of a terrorist act; or
  2. advocates the doing of a terrorist act. 

For the purposes of listing a terrorist organisation under the Criminal Code, the doing of a terrorist act includes the doing of a specific terrorist act, the doing of more than one terrorist act and the doing of a terrorist act, even if a terrorist act does not occur.

Background to this listing 

The Australian Government first proscribed the ESO as a terrorist organisation under the Criminal Code on 5 June 2003. It was subsequently re-listed on: 

  • 5 June 2005
  • 25 May 2007
  • 16 May 2009
  • 12 May 2012
  • 2 May 2015
  • 2 May 2018. 

Details of the organisation

Organisational overview and objectives 

The secretive nature of the ESO makes it difficult to gather detailed information about the group’s role and activities. The ESO is a discrete entity within Hizballah, responsible for activities including procurement, intelligence, counter intelligence, surveillance, planning, coordination and the execution of terrorist attacks against Hizballah’s enemies outside Lebanon. The ESO’s operations are generally characterised by their clandestine activities targeting Israeli and US interests outside the Middle East.

The ESO exists within Hizballah’s organisational structure. Hizballah is organised under a consultative council, the Majlis al-Shura, led by Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. Under the Majlis al‑Shura sit five functional councils: the political; parliamentary; executive; judicial; and military—or ‘Jihad’. The Military Council directs Hizballah’s Military Wing, which is responsible for all of Hizballah’s armed activities. The Military Wing comprises all elements of Hizballah’s militia and military-relevant functions, including the ESO which is a discrete entity. As such, the ESO’s activities are distinct from Hizballah's formal military actions in the Middle East.

Hizballah is a multi-faceted organisation with political, social and military components, and holds seats in Lebanon’s government. Within Lebanon, Hizballah traditionally represents the Lebanese Shia community, the country’s largest religious sect, and maintains a social welfare network that encompasses education and health services. Hizballah was founded in 1982 with Iranian assistance during the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Since entering the Lebanese Parliament in 1992 and the government in 1995, Hizballah has sought to strengthen its public image as a legitimate resistance movement and move away from its reputation as a terrorist group. 

Leadership

The ESO’s leader is Talal Hamiyah. Despite the highly compartmentalised manner in which the ESO operates, it exists within Hizballah’s organisational structure.

Hamiyah was implicated in the 1992 and 1994 attacks in Argentina (see below). The US State Department is offering a reward of up to USD 7 million for information on Hamiyah that leads to his location, arrest, or conviction.

Membership

Due to its secretive nature, information about the membership of the ESO is not widely available.

Funding

Due to its secretive nature, little is known about the ESO’s funding.

Links to other terrorist organisations

Due to its secretive nature, little is known about the ESO’s links to other terrorist organisations, as distinct from Hizballah and its Military Wing. Hizballah’s Military Wing has provided training, operational support and material to Palestinian violent extremist groups, including the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas’s Izz al‑Din al Qassam Brigades, both of which are proscribed as terrorist organisations in Australia under the Criminal Code, as well as Shia militias in Iraq and the Yemeni Houthis.

Terrorist activity

Directly or indirectly engaged in preparing, planning, assisting in or fostering the doing of terrorist acts

Generally, Hizballah does not publicly claim responsibility for terrorist attacks or acknowledge any ESO activities. The clandestine nature of the ESO makes gathering information about its activities difficult.

However, there has been no indication that the ESO’s role, including surveillance, planning, coordination and the execution of terrorist attacks against Hizballah’s enemies outside Lebanon, has changed in recent times. The ESO’s contingency planning—such as intelligence-gathering and the stockpiling of explosive components—for terrorist activities around the world is likely ongoing.

  • In March 2021, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Director, Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee, ‘Lebanese Hizballah has sent operatives to build terrorist infrastructures worldwide. The arrests of individuals in the United States allegedly linked to Lebanese Hizballah’s main overseas terrorist arm, and their intelligence collection and procurement efforts, demonstrate Lebanese Hizballah’s interest in long-term contingency planning activities here in the Homeland.’ The ESO is Hizballah’s main overseas terrorist arm.
  • In September 2020, then US Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Nathan Sales, told an audience in Europe ‘Since 2012, Hizballah has established caches of ammonium nitrate throughout Europe by transporting first aid kits whose cold packs contain the substance. I can reveal that such caches have been moved through Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. I can also reveal that significant ammonium nitrate caches have been discovered or destroyed in France, Greece, and Italy. We have reason to believe that this activity is still underway. As of 2018, ammonium nitrate caches were still suspected throughout Europe, possibly in Greece, Italy, and Spain.’ The methodology, including stockpiling of explosive components in preparation for hostile acts outside of Lebanon is consistent with ESO operational methods as Hizballah’s main overseas terrorist arm.
  • In September 2019, a naturalised American citizen was indicted in the US for undertaking terrorist activities on behalf of the ESO. In March 2019, US law enforcement discovered multiple surveillance photographs on the individual’s electronic devices; the dates on which these photographs were taken are unknown. He was charged with providing material support to, and receipt of military-type training from, Hizballah between approximately 1996 and March 2019. His activities allegedly included surveillance of potential targets across the US, including the United Nations headquarters, the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, airports, tunnels and bridges in New York City, in support of Hizballah’s attack planning efforts.
  • In July 2019, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated a senior member of the ESO, Salman Raouf Salman, under Executive Order 13224, which targets terrorists and those providing support to terrorists or acts of terrorism. Salman was designated for acting for or on behalf of Hizballah. The US has identified him as the coordinator of the July 1994 attack in Buenos Aires, Argentina (see below for more detail), and as the ESO handler for Mohammed Hamdar, who was arrested by Peruvian counter‑terrorism police in October 2014 for planning a terrorist operation in Peru. OFAC noted Salman’s designation highlights Hizballah’s ongoing operational presence in the Western Hemisphere and that Hizballah continues to pose a threat to the region by actively plotting attacks against civilian targets. 
  • In May 2019, an individual in the US was convicted of undertaking terrorist activities on behalf of the ESO. A court found the individual had, over a period of years until 2015, helped to procure weapons and gathered intelligence about potential targets in the US for future terrorist attacks. He searched for weapons suppliers, identified people who could be recruited or targeted for violence and conducted surveillance of potential targets across the US, including the JFK Airport and law enforcement facilities in New York City, including the federal building at 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan.
  • In 2017, Bolivian authorities reportedly identified a Hizballah-affiliated warehouse, seizing enough explosive precursor material to produce a 2.5-ton bomb, as well as a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. Separately in 2017, Guinean authorities seized a cache of more than 1,000 boxes of first aid cold packs from the same Chinese company that had produced the cold packs previously found in Cyprus and Thailand, and attributed to the ESO. Earlier in 2015, authorities in the United Kingdom arrested a Hizballah operative, who was a dual British-Lebanese citizen, who had amassed 12,500 first aid cold packs containing over three metric tons of ammonium nitrate in a London auto garage. The methodology, including stockpiling of explosive components in preparation for hostile acts outside of Lebanon, is consistent with ESO operational methods.
  • In August 2015, the Kuwait Security Service arrested up to 26 members of the Al-Abdali terror cell for stockpiling munitions and armaments on behalf of Hizballah. In January 2016, 23 members of the cell were found guilty of intent to carry out hostile acts against Kuwait. The methodology, including stockpiling of explosive components in preparation for hostile acts outside of Lebanon, is consistent with ESO operational methods.
  • In July 2015, Cyprus jailed an ESO operative after he pleaded guilty to stockpiling explosive materials. In May 2015, Cypriot authorities uncovered an ammonium nitrate cache—partially in the form of first-aid cold packs—maintained under ESO direction. The cold packs in Cyprus were similar to those previously used in suspected ESO operations.
  • In April 2014, two ESO operatives were arrested in Thailand for planning attacks against Israeli tourists. In October 2016, OFAC designated one of the men, Yosef Ayad, for acting on behalf of Hizballah by assisting in the planning, and supporting acts, of terrorism. OFAC noted that as an ESO operative, Ayad had procured precursor material used to produce explosives and collected information on tourist targets.

Generally, the ESO has not publicly admitted its responsibility for terrorist attacks outside of Lebanon. Significant attacks against targets outside of Lebanon reliably attributed to ESO include:

  • On 18 July 2012, the ESO carried out an attack on an Israeli tourist bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, which killed six people. In September 2020 a Bulgarian court convicted in absentia an Australian-Lebanese citizen for his role in the attack.
  • On 18 July 1994, a van carrying explosives was detonated outside the Argentinian-Israeli Mutual Association in Buenos Aries, Argentina, killing 85 people and injuring more than 300 others. In 1999, Argentine authorities issued an arrest warrant for then ESO leader Imad Mughniyah for his alleged involvement. No group claimed responsibility for the attack and Hizballah has repeatedly denied accusations that it conducted the attack. However, Argentine authorities concluded that the ESO was responsible.
  • On 17 March 1992, a truck laden with explosives was used to destroy the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people and injuring 242 others. Although Hizballah denied involvement, responsibility for the attack was claimed in the name of Islamic Jihad Organisation (an ESO alias). Argentine authorities eventually issued an arrest warrant for then ESO leader Imad Mughniyah for organising the attack.

Other considerations

Links to Australia 

There are no known specific threats to Australia or Australian interests posed by the ESO. However, it is possible that Australia or Australian interests could be harmed by future attacks carried out by the ESO.

A Bulgarian court convicted in absentia an Australian-Lebanese citizen for his alleged role in a 2012 attack (see above). 

Listings by likeminded countries or the United Nations 

New Zealand and the European Union list Hizballah’s Military Wing—under which the ESO sits—as a terrorist organisation. The United Kingdom previously listed the ESO as a terrorist organisation before extending the proscription to the Military Wing and, subsequently, Hizballah in its entirety. Hizballah as a whole, including the ESO, has been listed as terrorist organisation by the governments of the United States and Canada.

Engagement in peace or mediation processes 

The ESO is not known to have engaged in peace or mediation processes; however, as a political organisation, Hizballah engages with numerous international organisations and governments. 

Conclusion 

On the basis of the information above, the Australian Government assesses that the ESO continues to be directly or indirectly engaged in, preparing, planning, assisting in or fostering the doing of terrorist acts.​