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.”
New Secretary of State John Kerry also weighed in, urging “other governments around the world – and particularly our partners in Europe – to take immediate action to crack down on Hizballah. We need to send an unequivocal message to this terrorist group that it can no longer engage in despicable actions with impunity.”
Kerry is referring to the ongoing debate within the European Union whether or not to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. France and Germany are against listing Lebanon’s Islamic resistance, and led an aggressive campaign to convince the Bulgarians not to name Hezbollah as the culprit. The Netherlands, on the other hand, has been pushing for designation and has blacklisted Hezbollah separately from any EU actions. The UK meanwhile has designated Hezbollah’s “military wing,” an action taken largely because of Hezbollah fighters that squared off against UK troops in Iraq, and intended to distinguish it from the outfit’s “political wing,” a distinction that the Bulgarian report made implicitly.
In a statement following the report, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued against this idea, saying that “there is only one Hezbollah, it is one organization with one leadership.” As it turns out, Netanyahu’s interpretation is backed by Hezbollah itself. "All political, social and jihad work is tied to the decisions of this leadership," senior Hezbollah official Naim Qassem told the Los Angeles Times in 2009. "The same leadership that directs the parliamentary and government work also leads jihad actions in the struggle against Israel."
The distinction between the two “wings” is simply a convenient fiction invented by European policymakers. No one is fooled against his will, and the reality is that the Europeans aren’t even fooling themselves with their hairsplitting. The effect of separating the two “wings” is to give Hezbollah some wiggle room. If only the “military” side is listed then the “political” group can still raise money on the continent. The purpose of the distinction is to give European diplomats an advantage over their American counterparts. Because U.S. officials are not allowed to deal with a designated foreign terrorist organization like Hezbollah, the Europeans are able to step in and fill the gap. But if Hezbollah is designated as a whole, and not simply its “military” wing, then the Europeans will lose one of the few cards they have to play in their Middle East policy.
Spilling blood on European soil should make it much more difficult for the French and others to avoid designating Hezbollah, but “we’re not at a place yet where designation is certain, there’s a lot left to be done. There is no longer a debate over the facts,” according to Levitt. “The debate now is over policy—is it a smart move to list them?
Indeed, the Europeans were already pushing back even before the report. EU counterterrorism official Gilles de Kerchove argued the day before the announcement that there “is no automatic listing just because you have been behind a terrorist attack… It's not only the legal requirement that you have to take into consideration, it's also a political assessment of the context and the timing."
If de Kerchove seems to be making room for some sort of justification that Hezbollah might offer for the attack, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was even more mealy mouthed. "The EU and Member States will discuss the appropriate response based on all elements identified by the investigators," said Ashton, noting “the need for a reflection over the outcome of the investigation.”
The Europeans are primarily worried about losing their diplomatic prerogative, but are also, understandably, concerned about winding up in Hezbollah’s crosshairs. Hezbollah and Iran were effectively at war with France in the 80s, often in Paris itself, and with French troops and civilians filling the UNIFIL ranks in southern Lebanon, they’d prefer to avoid shaking the hornets’ nest. However, the fact is that Hezbollah has already targeted French UNIFIL troops, and those of other EU members, including Spain and Italy.
Finally the Europeans reason that designating Hezbollah might destabilize the Lebanese government. This is a particularly odd rationale given that Hezbollah controls the government and destabilizing it, or forcing Lebanese parties to abandon their alliance with the party of God, would serve the interests of Beirut’s pro-Western parties. Already the announcement seems to be having an effect inside Lebanon.
“It will be hard for Hezbollah’s allies to back it when Europe turns against it,” says NOW Lebanon’s managing editor Hanin Ghaddar. “Yesterday, Prime Minister Mikati said he condemns Bulgaria bombing, and the Lebanese government is ready to cooperate.” Mikati is not affiliated with the pro-democracy March 14 forces but was handpicked for the premiership by Hezbollah. “If you support them on the bombing then you’ll have problems in Europe,” says Ghaddar. “Mikati has business in Europe so he’s going to be very careful with this.”
According to Ghaddar, the Bulgaria report is as significant as the special tribunal for Lebanon that named four Hezbollah members guilty for the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. “Nasrallah has a speech in ten days,” says Ghaddar, “and everyone is saying that Hezbollah will have no comment before that, but I think they don’t know what to say. Again Hezbollah is in big trouble.”
It seems that the party of God is fighting on every conceivable front, and not faring well on any of them. In Syria, it’s sided with Bashar al-Assad’s besieged regime, sending forces to take on a Sunni-majority rebellion that will in time inevitably take its revenge on the Shiite militia. Its terrorist operations around the world are proving failures, except for the one in Bulgaria, which may in time turn Europe as well as its Lebanese allies against it.