On Monday evening, the Long War Journal reported that Bulgaria was preparing “to release an investigative report that will blame Hezbollah and Iran for the Burgas terror attack that killed five Israeli tourists and one Bulgarian national.” Today, Bulgaria’s Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov announced that the identity of three of those involved in the attack is known and that at least two of them are members of Hezbollah.
“We have followed their entire activities in Australia and Canada so we have information about financing and their membership in Hezbollah. A reasonable assumption can be made that the two of them were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah,” Tsvetanov said.
One of the two Hezbollah members was said to have lived in Lebanon since 2006, while the other had been living there since 2010. According to Tsvetanov, the driver’s licenses, some of which have been publicly released, were forged in Lebanon, but the cell members entered Europe using genuine passports from Canada and Australia.
Regarding the forged driver’s licenses from Lebanon, Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, said that they had come from the “same source.” On Tuesday afternoon, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird told reporters that a Canadian-Lebanese dual national was involved in the attack and is now at large in Lebanon.
Europol, which aided in the investigation, also announced on Tuesday that it did not believe the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber. “[A]nalysis of the bomb scene evidence by the Europol expert, including shrapnel from the improvised explosive device (IED), proved otherwise. It confirmed that the device had been remotely detonated and strongly suggested, therefore, that more than one person was responsible for the attack,” a Europol statement said.
Bulgaria’s charge against Hezbollah will likely serve as a strong catalyst for those pushing to have the European Union designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. In addition, it will provide vindication to Israel, which had declared immediately after the attack that Hezbollah and Iran were responsible.
Shortly after news of Bulgaria’s claim against Hezbollah spread, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement that said: “The Bulgarian findings announced today are clear: Hezbollah was directly responsible for the atrocity. There is only one Hezbollah. It is one organization with one leadership. This is yet a further corroboration of what we have already known, that Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons are orchestrating a worldwide campaign of terror that is spanning countries and continents.”
As of January 2012, Israeli intelligence believed that “Iran and Hezbollah have…planted roughly 40 terrorist sleeper cells across the globe, ready to hit Israeli and Jewish targets.”
A statement from John Brennan on Tuesday praised Bulgarian authorities for conducting a “professional and comprehensive investigation.”
“Bulgaria’s investigation exposes Hezbollah for what it is – a terrorist group that is willing to recklessly attack innocent men, women, and children, and that poses a real and growing threat not only to Europe, but to the rest of the world,” Brennan’s statement, issued by the White House, said.
Secretary of State John Kerry similarly said: “The finding is clear and unequivocal: Lebanese Hezbollah was responsible for this deadly assault on European soil. We condemn Hezbollah in the strongest terms for an attack which bears striking similarities to other disrupted plots of the last year.”
Hezbollah officials declined to comment on the news when asked by the Associated Press on Tuesday. A statement from Catherine Ashton’s spokesperson said that Ashton, the European Union’s high representative for foreign policy, had taken note of the results of the Bulgarian investigation and that “the implications of the investigation need to be assessed seriously.”
Meanwhile, Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird called on the EU to designate Hezbollah as a terror organization: “We urge the European Union and all partners who have not already done so to list Hezbollah as a terrorist entity and prosecute terrorist acts committed by this inhumane organization to the fullest possible extent.”
Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister appeared open to this as he told Al Arabiya on Tuesday that “we have very strong evidence that those who planned and executed the bombing are from the military wing of Hezbollah…we will take what we have to our colleagues at the EU and discuss with them on what position we can take to make sure that don’t happen again.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati said that his country was prepared to aid Bulgaria in the rest of its investigation. Security at the Bulgarian embassy in Lebanon was heightened following the release of the investigation’s results, according to Sofia News Agency.
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 Ronen Bergman.