June 27, 2021
When a NSW man convicted of violent offences escaped being listed as a ‘high-risk terrorist offender’ for fear of confusing anti-terrorism laws, the question for Australia is: should we persist with the fiction that Hezbollah’s External Security Organisation is a discrete and independent entity within Hezbollah?
In this recent case, it wasn’t clear to the presiding judge whether Ali Haidar’s purported support for Hezbollah was for the organisation’s political activities, or for its External Security Organisation, which has been listed as a terrorist organisation in Australia since 2003. As a result, NSW police were not successful in their application to declare him a high risk terrorist offender despite his history of other violent crimes.
Hezbollah’s ESO has been re-listed as a terrorist group six times under Australia’s Criminal Code. This week, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security endorsed the government’s decision to list the ESO for a seventh time.In close examination of the evidence, Hezbollah’s ESO clearly continues to meet the definition of a ‘terrorist organisation’ because it is engaged in, preparing, planning, assisting, and fostering terrorist acts.
The ESO has a long history of attacks around the world, including a 2012 bombing of an Israeli tourist bus in Bulgaria which killed six people. Last September a dual Australian-Lebanese citizen was convicted in absentia for his role in this attack.
Of concern, however, is the decision to re-list the ESO only given its connection to the entire Hezbollah organisation. Haidar’s case demonstrated the legal complications this created in applying anti-terrorism laws.
In its last review to re-listing Hezbollah’s ESO in 2018, PJCIS recommended the government consider extending the listing to include Hezbollah’s military wing. This time, we are urging the government to go a step further and list Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organisation.
The expert evidence put to the PJCIS overwhelmingly rejected the idea that the ESO operates independently from Hezbollah’s leadership council which oversees five administrative bodies organised thematically around political, military, parliamentary, executive and judicial activities.
Dr Matthew Levitt, a world-renowned expert on Hezbollah provided compelling evidence that there is no plausible intellectual case to distinguish between the ESO and the rest of Hezbollah, who he described as a “singular, unitary organisation”. As he noted, it is a distinction that Hezbollah itself explicitly rejects. Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary general openly stated Hezbollah has “one single leadership… with one administration” that manages all the organisation’s activities.
Similarly, another Hezbollah expert, Emanuele Ottolenghi, dismissed any distinction between the two, saying Hezbollah officials routinely move across administrative bodies – including the ESO which sits within the military wing. Not only do leaders share decisions but, according to Ottolenghi, Hezbollah’s funding is disseminated through a centralised streaming process, indicating “a command structure that is aware of, and therefore in no small measure responsible for, operational costs on the military side as well as in other fields of activity.”
By only listing the ESO as a terrorist organisation, Australia is increasingly isolated internationally. 22 countries and two regional organisations list them in their entirety including: Five Eyes allies such as the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada; like-minded countries such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Japan; and Arab countries and groupings including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League.Other like-minded jurisdictions such as the European Union, France and New Zealand at least extended their listing beyond the ESO to include the military wing.
The military wing has previously provided training and operational support for other organisations proscribed as terrorist entities by Australia such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas’s al Qassam Brigades.
Of course, broadening the listing of Hezbollah will create practical implications for some government agencies however the committee concluded these challenges can be mitigated if carefully implemented. Agencies like the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation believe it would have no impact on their operations, while the Australian Federal Police agree the status quo makes it difficult to investigate and prosecute someone for terrorism if an organisation is not listed as a terrorist entity.
Importantly, international experiences have shown that listing the entire Hezbollah organisation has not negatively impacted relations with Lebanon.Like Australia, for many years the UK only listed the ESO. But in 2008 it widened its listing to include the military wing and in 2019, all of Hezbollah. The UK Home Secretary who made that decision, Saijid Javid, said at the time upholding a distinction between the two was “derided as smoke and mirrors” and was untenable. Crucially, evaluating the UK’s decision in retrospect in 2020, Javid also said the UK’s relationship with Lebanon is as strong as ever.
On the strength of overwhelming evidence, the bipartisan judgement of the PJCIS is that the Australian government should not continue to give credence to the superficial notion that the ESO and the rest of Hezbollah are somehow separate entities. Hezbollah, in its entirety, should be listed as a terrorist organisation.
Senator James Paterson Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and a Liberal Senator for Victoria.
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