The Australian link to Hezbollah and the Bulgaria bus bombing

Australian links to political violence in Lebanon run deeper than a single attack. AAP/Stringer

An Australian has been linked to the July 18, 2012 Bulgarian bus bombing, that killed five Israeli tourists, the driver of a bus and a man carrying a bomb.

Several of those responsible for the attack are reported to have travelled from Lebanon, entering Bulgaria via Germany and Belgium, and to have used fake US driving licenses (printed in Lebanon) to rent hotels and cars.

The Australian involved is believed to be of Lebanese descent and to have moved to Lebanon in 2006 to join Hezbollah’s military wing. He is alleged to have been part of a three or four man cell and to have fulfilled the role of bomb-maker for the group. Authorities believe him to now be located somewhere in Lebanon.

Hezbollah

As part of a Shia and primarily nationalist orientated movement, Hezbollah represents a phenomenon distinct from the globally focused Sunni extremist movement represented by al-Qaeda and associated groups. While Australia does have extensive links to jihadist political violence in Lebanon this would be the first public example of an Australian involved with Hezbollah, Lebanon’s largest and most recognised militant group. But it is important to note that the organisation has denied responsibility for the attack, claiming it to be part of an international smear campaign.

If sanctioned the attack would have been carried out by the External Security Organisation, the branch of Hezbollah responsible for terrorist activities.

The bombing would constitute Hezbollah’s first terror strike on European soil since the 1990s and would be another manifestation of the simmering conflict between Israel and Iran (and by extension Hezbollah). The direct target appears to have been Israeli citizens, with the location chosen not only because of the Black Sea’s popularity with Israeli tourists, but also because security is considered particularly lax.

At first, authorities believed the attack was a suicide bombing, however bomb fragments revealed the device had been remotely detonated. More likely is that the bomb was intended to explode as the bus was driving, which would have caused significantly more carnage. But there may have been a malfunction which killed the man placing the bomb. This target and tactic would fit the modus operandi of Hezbollah, which generally does not carry out lone-bomber suicide attacks on foot.

An Australian was involved in a terrorist blast that killed seven people. AAP/Oliver Weiken

Hezbollah in Australia

Hezbollah’s External Security Organisation has been listed as a terrorist group by Australia since 2003, but the group’s political wing is recognised as an official party and is represented in the Lebanese Parliament. The UK and New Zealand also prescribe the External Security Organisation a terrorist organisation, while the entire apparatus of Hezbollah has been listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States and Canada.

While there is certainly no evidence the group has ever attempted political violence in this country, Australians have been investigated for providing financial support to the organisation as a whole. Indeed, as long ago as 1991, the federal government listed Hezbollah as having active support in Australia.

Further, in 2007 an investigation was conducted into two persons suspected of providing money to Hezbollah from Australia. Thousands of dollars in five distinct transactions are believed to have been transferred during the 2006 conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. Then Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, warned it was illegal to provide financial support to Hezbollah at the time of the conflict.

There have also been several investigations into broadcasts made into Australia by Lebanese-based television station Al-Manar, which has close associations with Hezbollah. The investigations related to whether or not broadcasts attempted to solicit funds for, or recruit people to join, Hezbollah. However, no breach of the Broadcasting Services (Anti-terrorism Requirements for Open Narrowcasting Television Services) Standard 2006 was recorded.

Though Hezbollah is not known to have operated in Australia, it has had a significant presence in our region, in places such as Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. Indeed, in March 1994 Hezbollah, with Iranian intelligence assistance, prepared a truck bomb to be detonated outside the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok. But the attack was thwarted when the driver of the truck had a traffic accident on route to the location.

Australian terrorist connections to Lebanon

Though this would constitute the first Australian known to have participated in an act of political violence in the name of Hezbollah, Australia does have significant links to political violence in Lebanon. There have been several significant instances of Australians involved with jihadist activity throughout the past decade, and support for Lebanese based groups has been disproportionately represented within Australian jihadist circles.

While there are many small and clandestine semi-autonomous jihadist groups within Lebanon, Fatah al-Islam and Asbat al-Ansar are two organisations which have seen significant Australian involvement. There have been thirteen Australians arrested for involvement with these Sunni groups as well as three others accused of involvement in jihadist activity in separate incidents.

The individual identified in the past few days appears to be another manifestation of Australians linked to terrorism internationally. Examples such as this highlight the small but persistent problem of citizens involved in acts of political violence both at home and overseas.