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 Hizballah's External Security Organisation (ESO)

(Also known as: Foreign Action Unit; Hizballah ESO; Hizballah International; Islamic Jihad Organisation; Revolutionary Justice Organisation; Unit 910; and Special Operations Branch)

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.

Basis for listing a terrorist organisation

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

  1. is directly or indirectly engaged in, preparing, planning, or 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 Hizballah's External Security Organisation as a terrorist organisation under the Criminal Code on 5 June 2003. It was re-listed on 5 June 2005, 25 May 2007, 16 May 2009, 12 May 2012, 2 May 2015 and 2 May 2018.

Terrorist activity of the organisation

Objectives

The broader goals of Hizballah are the 'liberation' of Jerusalem, the destruction of Israel, and the establishment of a Shia-led Islamic state in Lebanon. 

The ESO sits under the military wing of Hizballah: alongside, but distinct from, Hizballah's formal militia and military activity. The ESO operates as a discrete branch or entity within Hizballah. ESO operations include procurement, intelligence, counter intelligence, surveillance, planning, coordination and execution of terrorist attacks against Hizballah's enemies outside of Lebanon.

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

The ESO has an ongoing program of contingency planning for terrorist activities around the world. Due to the secretive nature of the ESO, it is difficult to gather detailed information about the group's role and activities. However, there is no indication that the ESO's role has changed in recent times, and activities over the past several years demonstrate ESO retains its separate terrorist function within Hizballah's overall organisational structure.

Activity related to preparing, and planning the doing of terrorist acts reliably attributed to the ESO include:

  • In June 2017, two men were arrested in the United States (US) for undertaking terrorist activities on behalf of the ESO. The men were allegedly involved in planning, and supplying material support on behalf of the ESO for attacks against Israeli and US targets. Both men had also allegedly received training from ESO.
  • One man was charged with conducting surveillance on targets in the US. Targets included military and police facilities, and Israeli military personnel in New York.
  • The other was charged with conducting missions in Panama including surveillance at the Panama Canal and the US and Israeli embassies in Panama.
  • 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, twenty-three 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.

The ESO has not generally publicly admitted responsibility for terrorist attacks outside of Lebanon. Significant attacks against targets outside of Lebanon reliably attributed to ESO include:

  • On 18 July 2012, a bomb exploded on an Israeli tourist bus at Sarafovo Airport in Burgas, Bulgaria, killing the attacker, five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver. The Bulgarian authorities have charged two individuals in connection with the attack; they state the individuals were members of the Islamic Jihad Organisation (IJO), an alias of ESO.
  • 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 ESO leader Imad Mughniyeh 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 Aries, killing 29 people and injuring 242 others. Although Hizballah denied involvement, responsibility for the attack was claimed in the name of the IJO. Argentine authorities eventually issued an arrest warrant for ESO leader Imad Mughniyah for organising the attack.

Advocating the doing of terrorist acts

Due to its highly secretive nature, the ESO does not generally publicly claim attacks, or publicly advocate the doing of terrorist acts.

Details of the organisation

Hizballah is a political organisation with deep roots in Lebanese society. Founded in 1982 with Iranian assistance during the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, Hizballah has evolved into a multi-faceted organisation with political, social and military components. Within Lebanon, Hizballah represents the Lebanese Shia community, the country's largest sect, and maintains a social welfare network that encompasses education and health services.

Hizballah also maintains a highly capable and well-resourced militia structured ostensibly to support its public policy to resist Israeli aggression, but also to defend and promote Shia interests in the context of Lebanon's historical and ongoing sectarian divisions. In 2006, Hizballah fought against the Israeli Defence Force and, since then, has been arming itself in preparation for future conflict. In 2013, Hizballah confirmed the organisation deployed combat forces in Syria, and has since provided military assistance to Syrian regime forces, Iranian and Russian troops, and pro-regime militant groups in Syria.

The ESO—alternately known as IJO—was established in 1983, after Hizballah's attack on the US military in Beirut. The ESO sits under the military wing of Hizballah, alongside, but distinct from, Hizballah's formal militia and military activity. The ESO is a discrete branch or entity within Hizballah, responsible for procurement, intelligence, counter intelligence, surveillance, planning, coordination and the execution of terrorist attacks against Hizballah's enemies outside of Lebanon. Due to its secretive nature, within Hizballah information about the organisational structure of the military wing is not widely available.

Since entering the Lebanese Parliament in 1992 and the government in 1995, Hizballah has sought to strengthen its public image as a respected resistance movement and shift its reputation as a terrorist group. This has resulted in the ESO operating independently of its parent body. This also reinforces Hizballah's need to distance the organisation from any activity that could be construed as terrorism. Consequently, Hizballah is unlikely to either claim responsibility for a terrorist attack or acknowledge any ESO activities.

Leadership

Imad Mughniyah led the ESO until his assassination in Damascus in 2008. The group's current leader is Talal Hamiyah, previously a deputy of Mughniyah. Hamiyah was implicated in the 1992 and 1994 attacks in Argentina (listed above). The US State Department is offering a reward of up to USD $7 million for information that leads to the location, arrest, or conviction in any country of Hamiyah.

Membership

Due to its highly secretive nature, little is known about the ESO's membership.

Recruitment and funding

Due to its highly secretive nature, little is known about the ESO's recruitment, and funding, as distinct from the recruitment and funding for Hizballah in general. It is believed that the ESO values recruits with dual citizenship, and who have access to passports from Western countries.

Links to other terrorist organisations

Due to its highly secretive nature, little is known about the ESO's links to other terrorist organisations, as distinct from Hizballah. Hizballah elements have provided training, operational support and material to Palestinian extremist groups, including the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and HAMAS's Izz al-Din al‑Qassam Brigades, both of which are proscribed entities in Australia, as well as to Shia militia elements in Iraq.

Links to Australia

Bulgarian authorities have charged an Australian national in absentia with involvement in the July 2012 attack in Burgas, Bulgaria (listed above).

Threats to Australian interests

We have no information on specific threats to Australia or Australian interests posed by the ESO. However, it is possible that Australia or Australian interests could be the target of future ESO attacks, or impacted by future attacks offshore.

Listed by the United Nations or like-minded countries

The European Union and New Zealand have listed Hizballah's Military Wing—under which ESO sits—as a terrorist organisation. The United Kingdom previously listed Hizballah's ESO as a terrorist organisation, before extending the proscription to include Hizballah's Military Apparatus.

Hizballah as a whole (including ESO) has been listed as a terrorist organisation by the governments of the United States and Canada.

Engagement in peace or mediation processes

The ESO specifically, has not been known to engage in peace or mediation processes; however, as a political organisation, Hizballah engages with numerous international organisations and governments.

Conclusion

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

In the course of pursuing its objectives, the ESO is known to have committed or threatened actions that: 

  1. cause, or could cause, death, serious harm to persons, serious damage to property, endangered life (other than the life of the person taking the action), or create a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public;
  2. are intended to have those effects;
  3. are done with the intention of advancing the ESO's political, religious or ideological causes;
  4. are done with the intention of intimidating the government of one or more foreign countries; and
  5. are done with the intention of intimidating the public or sections of the public.