Officials from several countries are said to be trying to find two members of Hezbollah alleged to be behind the Burgas terror attack last July. On Feb. 5, Bulgaria’s Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov announced that the identity of three of those involved in the Burgas terror attack was known and that at least two of them are members of Hezbollah. While the real names of the two living suspects have not yet been released, authorities believe that they are now living in Lebanon.
In an interview on Feb. 6, Tsvetanov provided new details on the attack that killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian national. According to Tsvetanov, the three members of the cell flew from Beirut to Warsaw before taking a train to Bulgaria, the New York Times reported. Although the two living suspects entered Europe on genuine Canadian and Australian passports, in Bulgaria they used forged driver’s licenses that were created by the “same source” in Lebanon, according to Europol.
Tsvetanov also appeared to confirm Europol’s claim that the attack was not intended to be a suicide bombing, but rather that the cell planned to blow the bus up as it was traveling to a hotel near the airport.
After the bombing, according to Tsvetanov, the two remaining members of the cell fled to Romania over land, and then flew to Turkey before returning to Lebanon. One of the two Hezbollah members is said to have lived in Lebanon since 2006, while the other had been living there since 2010.
According to a former senior Western official, Bulgarian officials learned of the Australian national, who has been described as a “bombmaker of Lebanese descent,” in September 2012 after a tip from a European intelligence agency. The suspect who used the Canadian passport is said have been born in Lebanon, and moved to Canada at the age of eight, at which point he gained citizenship. Canada’s Immigration Minister on Wednesday said that the suspect “has [not] been a habitual resident in Canada since the age of 12.”
In an interview with NOW on Wednesday, Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov admitted that “[t]here are a number of findings that are still classified.” When asked whether the real names of the suspects will be released, Mladenov said that “[a]t this stage, this is still part of the ongoing investigation.”
On Feb. 5, Hezbollah’s Deputy Security General Sheikh Naim Qassem appeared to dismiss the Bulgarian government’s investigation, as he said: “All these accusations against Hezbollah will have no effect, and do not change the facts or realities on the ground.” Qassem also accused Israel of “running a campaign of global terror against Hezbollah.”
Meanwhile, Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov has countered those who have questioned the decision to publicly blame Hezbollah. “If Bulgaria did not have enough arguments to announce yesterday that the traces in this attack lead to Hezbollah’s military wing, we would not have done it,” Mladenov said.
The European Union is expected to consider adding Hezbollah to its list of terror organizations in the near future. On Feb. 6, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “If the evidence proves to be true, that Hezbollah is indeed responsible for this despicable attack, then consequences will have to follow.”
While many believe that the Bulgarian investigation will serve as a catalyst for the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terror organization, some diplomats say that the EU may not follow through, according to Agence France Presse. Interestingly, in her statement after Bulgaria announced that Hezbollah was behind the attack, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s high representative for foreign policy, failed to directly mention Hezbollah as she merely said that “the implications of the investigation need to be assessed seriously.”
Some observers believe that the EU will only designate Hezbollah’s military wing, at best, despite the fact that the aforementioned Deputy Security General of Hezbollah Naim Qassem has publicly admitted that “Hezbollah has a single leadership…. All political, social and jihad work is tied to the decisions of this leadership…. The same leadership that directs the parliamentary and government work also leads jihad actions in the struggle against Israel.”
The Burgas attack
On July 18, 2012, the 18th anniversary of the Buenos Aires AMIA bombing, a bomb (it is unclear if it was a suicide bomber) exploded as Israeli tourists boarded buses at the airport in Burgas, Bulgaria. Five Israelis and one Bulgarian national were killed in the attack, which wounded dozens.
While Bulgaria’s Interior Minister said that the bombing was “a deliberate attack,” Israeli officials quickly pointed the finger at Iran and Hezbollah. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s soon declared: “I know based on absolutely rock-solid intelligence that this is Hezbollah and this is something that Iran knows about very, very well.”
Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations Mohammad Khazaee countered by saying Israel had carried out the attack. “Such [a] terrorist operation could only be planned and carried out by the same regime whose short history is full of state terrorism operations and assassinations aimed at implicating others for narrow political gains,” he claimed.
Despite Iranian allegations, American and Israeli officials were soon fairly certain that the attack had been carried out by Hezbollah with direction from Iran. “Israeli intelligence has evidence of many telephone calls between Lebanon and Burgas in the two months before the bombing… with the volume intensifying in the three days leading up to it,” the New York Times reported in early August.
Past Iranian and Hezbollah attacks
According to the NYPD’s Intelligence Division, Iran has “sharply increased its operational tempo and its willingness to conduct terrorist attacks targeting Israeli interests and the International Jewish community worldwide.” Fortunately, since May 2011, over 20 attacks tied to Iran and Hezbollah against Israelis and Jews abroad have been thwarted. These thwarted attacks, not all of which have been publicly reported, have taken place in Cyprus, Turkey, Kenya, India, Thailand, and Azerbaijan, among others.
While the recent uptick in attempted plots is noteworthy, Iran and Hezbollah have a notorious history of attempting and carrying out attacks against Jews and Israelis abroad.
For example, on March 17, 1992, a truck filled with explosives was driven into the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The attack killed 29 people, injured over 240, and “severely damaged a nearby church, school, and retirement home.” The Islamic Jihad Organization, which is another name for Hezbollah, took responsibility for the attack and even “released a videotape of the Israeli Embassy taken during surveillance before the bombing.” While the claim of responsibility was noteworthy, investigators, in particular those from Israel and the United States, suspected a far more powerful actor was behind the attack, specifically Iran.
Ronen Bergman, one of the leading Israeli investigative journalists, recounts some of the evidence against Iran and Hezbollah in his book, The Secret War with Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle Against the World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist Power.
According to Bergman, three days before the bombing in 1992, the National Security Agency (NSA), intercepted a message from the Iranian embassy in Moscow, which “contained clear signs of awareness of an impending attack on an Israeli legation in South America.” The intercept, however, was not translated in real-time, and was only discovered in the post-attack investigation. Additional intercepts from the Iranian embassies in Argentina and Brazil also “appeared in retrospect to contain coded signals about the approaching operation.” While these provided strong evidence of an Iranian hand in the attack, American investigators soon discovered “not a smoking gun, but a blazing cannon,” according to a Mossad official. The blazing cannon was a phone conversation between Imad Mughniyeh and Talal Hamiyah, a senior member of Hezbollah, who is now the head of Hezbollah’s External Security Organization, which is “responsible for the planning, coordination, and execution of terrorist attacks outside of Lebanon.” In the conversation, Hamiyah is heard rejoicing over “our project in Argentina,” in addition to mocking the Shin Bet, also known as the Israel Security Agency.
A little over two years later, on July 18, 1994, a van filled with explosives was blown up outside the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires. The attack killed at least 85 people, and wounded hundreds more. Although Israeli intelligence officials were at first “shocked” by the attack, they soon discovered that those behind the attack were also those behind the 1992 bombing, according to Bergman.
In 2006, arrest warrants were issued for a number of Iranian officials for their roles in the AMIA attack, including former President Hashemi-Rafsanjani, former Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian and former Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Velayati. In November 2007, INTERPOL upheld a decision to issue Red Notices for six individuals tied to the 1994 bombing: Imad Fayez Moughnieh, Ali Fallahijan, Mohsen Rabbani, Ahmad Reza Asghari, Ahmad Vahidi and Mohsen Rezai.