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Mapping a terrorist empire: New Hezbollah resource again makes the case for Australia to ban the Lebanese group

Aug 7, 2020 | Oved Lobel

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For the first time, thanks to leading counter-terrorism expert  Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy,  it is possible to  visualise  the true transnational extent of Hezbollah’s criminal and terrorist activities. Levitt, the author of “Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God,” has teamed up with other researchers to create an  interactive map  of everything experts know about  Hezbollah’s transnational criminal enterprise, from the financial and logistical facilitation networks to the terrorist cells. Just click any location and see exactly where every suspect and plot is linked to others, including all relevant documentation and excerpts from his book.   

The first thing that strikes  viewers  is just how active Hezbollah has been outside Lebanon, including in Southeast Asia and Australia.  

For instance, click on  Manila and arrows will suddenly jut out in all directions pointing to multiple locations in the region, bringing up a  Philippine  intelligence report from March 2000 in a separate window that asserts  “terrorist activities are being planned…by members of  suspected Hizballah cells in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore and Australia.” Among the discussed plans, “the entry of three Indonesian members to Australia for [a] possible attack on American and Jewish targets during the Olympics 2000.” More importantly, Hezbollah wished to use Australia as a gateway to infiltrate terrorists into  the Jewish state, since Australian passports would attract less scrutiny. Pandu  Yudhawinata, one of the primary agents overseeing these plans alongside senior operative  Abu al-Ful, was arrested by  Philippines  police on drug charges in 1999, accidentally disrupting the entire network and  resulting in the  confiscation of  the passports. According to Levitt, the CIA detained at least 45 Hezbollah operatives in the region that year.  

That certainly didn’t end Hezbollah’s presence, however.  It has  continued to  stockpile explosives  and attempt attacks  - alongside  its  parent  organisation, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF)  -  on Israeli and Gulf State targets, particularly in Thailand, including several  planned  assassinations and a  1994  attempt to blow up the Israeli embassy in Bangkok,   which  would  have  been devastating,  and was only foiled because the driver got cold feet. 

The interactive map brings into sharp focus once again how unusual it is for  Australia  to continue to  refuse  to designate Hezbollah  in its entirety as a terrorist  organisation, thereby remaining out of step with most of our key allies.   

Australia is the only Western country to go even beyond  making  the  farcical distinction between Hezbollah’s “military wing” and “political wing,” as some countries do,   and designates only  Hezbollah’s  “External Security  Organisation”  as a terrorist entity.  As  countries in Europe and South America have finally begun banning the entire  organisation  and all its fundraising and criminal activities, the Australian attitude  seems dominated by inertia. What Levitt’s map demonstrates more clearly than ever is how impossible it is for any intelligence agency to meaningfully identify members of the ESO versus the broader Hezbollah. For instance, in South America, key Hezbollah “financier” and logistics facilitator  Assad Barakat  was also reportedly “a card-carrying member of Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO) terrorist wing.”  

Already in 2004, Levitt cites a Dutch intelligence report that concludes “Hezbollah’s political and terrorist wings are controlled by one  coordinating  council.”  

Hezbollah itself has mocked the distinction between its military and political wings.  In 2013,  Mohammad  Raad, head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary delegation,  accurately  noted  that “The Hezbollah military wing is a lie invented by the Europeans because they feel a need to communicate with us and they want to make a delusional separation between the so-called military and political wings.”  

What makes this position  even more  problematic is  that  networks providing  support for Hezbollah in Australia  are  an open secret, and judging from its activities in other countries, it is  quite likely that these networks are  intertwined with Middle Eastern  organised  crime  here. 

In June 2007, the head of the  Supreme Islamic Shia Council of Australia, Sheikh Kama Mousselmani, said, “we believe terrorists come from Israel – not from our people. I support Hezbollah,” and  claimed  the Shia community  here also  fervently  supported it. He even admitted that the community had sent funds back to Lebanon after the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, but claimed none had gone to militants.

During  an ABC The World Today broadcast  on Hezbollah in Australia in 2003, reporter Tanya Nolan said,  “There are those who spoke to  The World Today  who say there is financial support for Hezbollah within the Lebanese community, but reiterate the view that none actively support or  sympathise  with any terrorist  organisation.” As  Mousselmani  said, however, the community supporting Hezbollah does not believe it is a terrorist  organisation, so  this appears to be  a  far from reassuring sentiment! 

According to a 2010  report  in The Australian:  

[Hezbollah’s]  ESO was first detected in Australia in the 90s, when ASIO investigated a Sydney man associated with Sydney’s Arncliffe mosque, the largest Shia  centre  of worship in Australia. The man was in contact with ESO headquarters and hosted a visit by a number  of ESO officials to Australia. It was believed its purpose was to recruit local supporters who could assist with logistics such as the procurement of so-called dual-use technology… 

‘Efforts by Australian authorities to curtail the ESO in Australia are complicated by the fact that its parent body, Hezbollah, enjoys substantial support among local Muslim communities, especially those of Lebanese origin, where it is based. 

“There’s no question about [there being] fairly large support from a large part of the Australian community who support and  sympathise with Hezbollah in Australia,” says Roland  Jabbour, chairman of the Australian Arabic Council. 

In late 2019, the  Daily Telegraph  revealed  that the  Al-Mabarrat  Benevolent Society, a  Sydney-based  charity founded by  Mohammad Hossein  Fadlallah, a key spiritual leader of Hezbollah,  was being run by his sons from Lebanon alongside other local Hezbollah  sympathisers, including Yacoub  Hammoud, the brother of a Hezbollah commander.  One of the directors, Mustapha Hassan, said in 2006 that the charity regularly sent cheques of $20,000 or more to Lebanon. 

The charity was closed down despite denials of financial support for Hezbollah in September 2019, although a  parallel organisation, the Al-Mabarrat  Association Incorporated, still exists, with some of the same directors, including  Hammoud, Hassan and Sheikh Youssef Nabha, the imam of  the  Masjid  Arrahman  Mosque in Sydney. Sheikh Nabha  invited  the Iranian ambassador to Australia,  Fereidoun  Haghbin, to his mosque in January to extend “his sincere condolences to the Iranian Ambassador on the martyrdom of [IRGC-QF commander] General  Qasem  Soleimani and [his Iraqi viceroy] Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.”  

One of the  suspects  in the 2012  Hezbollah  bombing  of an Israeli tourist bus  in Bulgaria, Meliad  Farah, was an Australian citizen.  The Sydney Morning Herald also reported in 2017 that a Sydney-based money launderer and crime figure, identified as a “Hezbollah functionary,” brokered an arms deal between China and Iran and Hezbollah in 2011. The small arms shipment was reportedly discovered as part of an international investigation into Hezbollah’s links with narcotics traffickers in Latin American, the Middle East and China. 

What Levitt’s interactive map makes clear is that not only is Hezbollah actively planning and causing violence in our own region of the world, but other regions may also be ultimately suffering because of Australia’s laxity with the group It’s possible that Hezbollah has never been publicly tied to any drug busts or other criminal activities among the Middle Eastern organised crime syndicates in Australia because Hezbollah involvement is currently legally immaterial. An Australian designation of the entire group as a terrorist organisation would help reduce the capabilities of the group around the world, given how interconnected all its international cells and activities are, and could also potentially provide Australian police with more tools to deal with certain organised criminal elements operating in this country.  

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