Danny Citrinowicz, senior research fellow at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy in Israel
Hezbollah’s Unit 910, the External Security Organization (ESO), functions as the strategic arm of Hezbollah and Iran. Its purpose is to serve as a deterrent against the West and against Israel in particular.
The unit comprises a small group of operatives (mainly Lebanese Shiites whose families were not born in Lebanon), some of which hold authentic foreign identity documents allowing them to travel across the world using tourist or business cover stories.
Unit 910 has demonstrated that it has terrorist infrastructure in diverse arenas around the world and it has committed, or intends to carry out, terror attacks against Israeli, American and Jewish targets. Given the infrastructure it has set up in various countries around the world, Hezbollah seems capable of carrying out terrorist attacks almost anywhere in the world, and the organization’s foothold is evident across many continents where Hezbollah terrorist activities or plots have been uncovered.
However, in recent years the units have suffered numerous failures. Several operatives have been arrested all over the world after state intelligence revealed their connection to Hezbollah and the operational mechanism of the unit was exposed. These exposures demonstrate the unique way 910 cells and operatives work: from cover stories, methods of communication and transferring operational material and the use of false identities.
ESO activity in Europe
Unit 910 was able to carry out numerous attacks all over Europe — mainly on Jewish and Israeli targets — because of the group’s well-established infrastructure and advanced capabilities in Europe. In Germany alone, it is estimated that Hezbollah has over 1,000 operatives, serving its organizational interests.
In order to facilitate its activities, the unit establishes ties with elements who support Hezbollah and are permanent residents abroad and uses these elements for logistic and operational purposes. The majority of these local facilitators come from Lebanese families who emigrated from Lebanon years ago, while others are natives who have converted to Islam or Shia Islam, and are eager to contribute to the “struggle” while accepting the risks involved in providing support to a terrorist organization.
Many Unit 910 operatives utilize their dual citizenship to travel the world and operate on behalf of the unit. For example, Mohamad Hassan El-Husseini — the Hezbollah suicide bomber who detonated explosives on a tourist bus carrying Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, killing six in July 2012 — held dual Lebanese-French citizenship. Also, Hussein Bassam Abdallah — the Hezbollah operative arrested in Cyprus with 8.2 tons of ammonium nitrate in his residence — held Lebanese–Canadian citizenship.
Given the recent failures and exposures of Unit 910, it is possible that Hezbollah and Iran will try to “reinvent the wheel” and seek other methods of operation that would allow them to work freely in Europe and other places. The obvious candidates to support or replace the current mechanism are Al-Mustafa University graduates.
Al-Mustafa University was founded in 2007 by Iran’s current Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who directs its activities and is the school’s highest authority. In 2016, Iran allocated $74 million to Al-Mustafa. Apart from state funding, the university gets money from Khamanei’s personal office and network of business and charitable organizations. The current president of Al-Mustafa, Ayatollah Ali Abbasi, is a hardline member of Khamenei’s inner circle who continues to call for armed conflict with Israel.
Al-Mustafa University trains clerics around the world to spread “Khomenism” in their home countries. The university boasts a presence in over 30 African countries and claims to have 5,000 African students enrolled in its various programs across the continent, including 2,000 studying in Iran who return home several times a year for missionary purposes.
Al-Mustafa also operates several branches in European countries, most notably the Islamic College of London. Graduates of Al-Mustafa, such as Italian cleric Abbas DiPalma, have gone on to form Iranian cultural centers in their home countries, such as the Imam Mahdi Center in Rome. Al-Mustafa has also dispatched Lebanese clerics as missionaries to Latin America, where they seek to create inroads with expat communities and proselytize among local populations.
Additionally, there have been reports of Al-Mustafa students — particularly those from Afghanistan and Pakistan — joining Iran-backed militias fighting in Syria to prop up the Bashar Al-Assad regime. The university offers students generous scholarships which aim to encourage them to study in Iran or in any of the university’s dozens of global branches — primarily those in Africa, South America, Asia and Europe. Online classes for those who can’t physically attend are also an option.
Given their loyalty to the Iranian cause (in light of the indoctrination process that they undergo in the university) these graduates are increasingly being considered for induction into Hezbollah operational units. Many of these graduates also have combat experience fighting in Syria and Iraq, which adds to their appeal.
The US administration recently sanctioned the university, accusing it of being “a recruitment platform of the IRGC-QF for intelligence collection and operations, including recruitment for IRGC-QF-led foreign militias fighting on behalf of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria.”
The Treasury Department alleged that the Quds Force used Al-Mustafa International University as a “cover” to recruit Afghans for the blacklisted Fatemiyoun Brigade — a pro-Iranian militia that fought in Syria. Moreover, it said the Quds Force also used Al-Mustafa’s campus in Qom “as a recruitment ground” for Pakistani students to join the blacklisted Zainabiyoun Brigade — a militia made up of Pakistani Shias.
In light of the increasing difficulty of Iran and Hezbollah to build terrorist cells all over the world, it is a growing probability that these graduates will become a target for Iranian and Hezbollah recruitment.
Similar to the ISIS model where European citizens indoctrinated by extremist clerics were lured to fight in Iraq and Syria, Iran and Hezbollah can easily recruit these “brainwashed” graduates — especially those who have attended campuses in Iran, Iraq and Syria and gained combat experience — and send them back to Europe to be part of Unit 910 infrastructure.
Apart from these attributes, these graduates have several added advantages. First, they know the culture and language of their home countries which helps them blend in. Second, they have a legitimate identity and passport that gives them freedom of movement. Third, they have relatives and friends that can help their activities. And lastly, they have ideological and financial support from dedicated religious centers in their home countries, known to have connections with Hezbollah elements in Lebanon and other places.
In order to detect the possible use of these graduates by Hezbollah and Iran operational units it imperative:
- To increase surveillance of students who have studied in Qom after they return from their studies
- To increase monitoring of Shia refugees that are Al-Mustafa University graduates (especially if they have combat experience in Syria or Iraq) seeking to live in Europe
- To increase monitoring of local Al-Mustafa branches all over the continent, to prevent incitement that will be used to recruit possible operatives in the relevant countries.
- To analyze any communication from the university to its followers in Europe to monitor attempts to recruit members for Hezbollah.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.