Non-State Actors

Hezbollah’s Black Ops Intelligence

March 23, 2021

Iñigo Camilleri De Castanedo

 

 

The External Security Organisation (ESO) or Unit 910, is Hezbollah’s black ops clandestine branch with a likely network of agents spanning five continents.

 

 

Why Does This Matter?

 

Hezbollah’s External Security Organisation (ESO) is labelled as the foreign military wing of Hezbollah. The idea of the ESO goes further than what can be perceived as a ‘military wing’. Also known as “Unit 910” or “Islamic Jihad Organisation” (IJO), the branch functions as Hezbollah’s black ops intelligence wing.

 

  • The ESO is not limited to the operational preparation and execution of targeted attacks. Aiding Hezbollah’s interests likely lies in maintaining financial flow to support operations and infrastructure in Lebanon.

  • Foreign Lebanese communities are likely to be exploited by ESO operatives to strengthen the flow of income as well as other resources. Expatriate communities are likely to be targeted with a financial rather than an ideological interest.

  • It is likely that the ESO has the operational cross-continental capability. The compartmentalisation of the branch reduces the effect arrests have on ESO foreign operatives.

 

 

 

Why is this Important?

 

Public attention is on Hezbollah’s relationship with the Iranian government, as well as Hezbollah’s role within Lebanese society. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimated that Hezbollah has 20,000 members, with a majority in the Middle East. Hezbollah’s black ops only share a small proportion of that figure, yet that does not imply that the ESO lacks resources or capabilities. ESO operatives were arrested in Asia, Africa, South & North America as well as Europe.

 

A perception of a military wing should not create an idea of loosely connected cells or sympathisers of Hezbollah with no unified objective. Extensive clandestine training makes Hezbollah’s black ops resemble an authoritarian intelligence agency. Its clandestine nature makes ESO operatives what would be traditionally considered ‘Illegals’ in intelligence tradecraft.

 

 

 

Tactics, Techniques & Methodologies

 

Unit 910 is the covert foreign intelligence and operational branch of Hezbollah outside the Middle East. Hezbollah’s black ops are led by Salman Raouf Salman, responsible for the AMIA bombing in Argentina in 1994. The ESO is responsible for all clandestine foreign activity relating to intelligence, counter-intelligence and operations. It has both cross-continental capability and a capacity to penetrate licit and illicit environments.

 

The ESO’s tactic is likely to develop long-term operational, intelligence and counter-intelligence capabilities outside Lebanon and the Middle East. Unit 910 deploys operatives who blend in communities and maintain cover stories while being controlled by a handler. Hezbollah’s black ops likely prefer gathering capabilities and obtaining intelligence instead of carrying out attacks to avoid drawing law-enforcement.

 

To avoid law-enforcement, compartmentalisation characterises the functionality of Hezbollah’s black ops. Training recruits as well as handlers are given false identities and nicknames. Recruits are delivered to training using window-tinted vans, while heads are covered to prevent any leak of knowledge regarding the methodology of the ESO. An arrested operative’s handler stated that “the less you know the better it is”.

 

 

Training

 

Training is divided into military, intelligence and ideological categories. It is carried out in camps in Lebanon and lasts an average of 6 years. Ideological training lasts 6 days, while the remaining training period is dedicated to weapon and explosive handling and intelligence tradecraft. Training camps have the capability of holding field exercises. This makes Hezbollah’s black ops capable of carrying out simultaneous training of multiple operatives. 

 

Military training includes extensive experience in explosives as well as weapons handling, with drills completing the period. Operatives are taught how to produce and handle explosives like Ammonium Nitrate, as well as training to avoid law-enforcement attraction in gathering needed supplies. Weapons handled include AK-47’s, M16’s, MP-5’s or RPG’s in military drills. Altogether this makes Hezbollah’s black ops operatives experienced in sabotage operations.

 

Intelligence tradecraft is taught through surveillance, counter-surveillance and communication training. Agents learn to take photographs and videos without drawing public attention. To gain experience, operatives are tasked to carry surveillance on Israeli troop movements in Southern Lebanon and provide intelligence on patterns, behaviours and vulnerabilities. Additionally, communication methodologies through email are taught, using coded messages sometimes labelled as ‘spam’ to indicate instructions.

 

 

Ammonium Nitrate / Phillie Casablanca.

 

 

 

Missions

 

Hezbollah’s black ops sent operatives to New York, Washington, Thailand, Panama to gather capabilities or obtain intelligence. The latest arrest of Alexei Saab shows the deployment of the agent to New York in 2000. Saab produced photographs highlighting potential targets of key public infrastructure like the Brooklyn Bridge or the White House. The agent, arrested in March 2019, also married a female to provide her access to US citizenship.

 

Samer El-Debek and Ali Kourani, arrested in 2017, carried out intelligence gathering in Thailand, Panama and the US. El-Debek travelled to Thailand to empty a safehouse detected to be under surveillance. Hezbollah’s black ops also sent El-Debek to Panama, using Colombia as arrival and departure points, to provide intelligence regarding vulnerabilities of the Panama Canal. In the US, Kourani’s handler instructed the operative to obtain intelligence on IDF soldiers as well as night-vision, communication and drone technology, to replicate and increase the ESO’s capabilities.

 

 

 

Image: The 961 (link)

 

 

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