Yesterday the Bulgarian government announced the results of its investigation into the July 18, 2012 bus bombing that killed 5 Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver in the city of Burgas. At least two members of what appears to have been a three-man team belong to Hezbollah. More specifically, explained Bulgaria’s interior minister, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, they were part of Hezbollah’s “military wing”—a peculiar turn of phrase that hints at the political implications of the Bulgarian investigation, which may have a major impact on European Union foreign policy as well as Hezbollah’s ability to operate on the continent. And yet the most serious repercussions may be felt inside Lebanon, where Hezbollah is already feeling the pressure.
Even as late as the night before the announcement, says Matthew Levitt a former Treasury Department official and now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “U.S. officials didn’t know if Bulgaria would go ahead and name Hezbollah. The Israelis seemed more confident, but remained tight-lipped about it.” And the Bulgarians, Levitt told me, “spoke truth to power. They made it clear these were Hezbollah operatives, funded by Hezbollah in a Hezbollah plot.”
It would be hard to overstate the resolve the Bulgarian government showed in making the announcement. “Sofia came under enormous pressure from among others the French and Germans to 'nuance' the report and avoid antagonizing Hezbollah,” says Omri Ceren, a senior advisor at The Israel Project. “That Bulgarian officials were willing to let the evidence guide them and expose who was behind the attack, even at this very delicate time for the European Union and for Bulgaria's place inside of it, took genuine political courage.”
There had been some speculation that the Bulgarians might hint at Hezbollah involvement without naming the group and likely inviting further attacks from an outfit that has picked up the pace of its terrorist operations abroad in the last three years. As Levitt shows in his new study, “Hizballah and the Qods Force in Iran's Shadow War with the West,” since January 2010 the Lebanese group and its Iranian partners have plotted numerous attacks throughout Europe and the rest of the world, targeting Israeli embassies and Jewish communities in, among other places, Cyprus, Turkey, Thailand, Kenya, India, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.
The operation at the bus station in Burgas was one of Hezbollah’s few successes, and Bulgaria’s response comes in stark contrast to the decision recently taken by the Argentinean government to form a “truth commission” with the Islamic Republic of Iran to investigate the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. The purpose of the agreement is to bury the case and whitewash Hezbollah’s role in killing 85 people and wounding hundreds, exactly 18 years to the day before the Burgas bombing. Bulgaria chose instead to underscore Hezbollah’s bloody career.
The Obama administration and other U.S. officials greeted the Sofia report with enthusiasm. The White House’s counterterrorism adviser John Brennan commended “its friend and NATO ally.” Obama’s nominee for CIA director has in the past indicated he’s somewhat confused about Hezbollah, recommending for instance that Washington should seek to empower the terror group’s so-called “moderates.” But regarding the Burgas bombing, Brennan was clear-eyed. “Bulgaria’s investigation exposes Hizballah for what it is,” Brennan said in a released statement, “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.”