“What can be established as a well-grounded assumption – I want to repeat, a well-grounded assumption – is that the two persons whose real identity has been determined belonged to the military wing of Hezbollah,” Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov announced last Tuesday, Feb. 5.
On July 18, 2012, a group of 200 young Israelis had just flown into Burgas airport in Bulgaria and were being driven to their hotels in three buses when an explosion hit one of the vehicles in what appeared to be a suicide bomber attack. The explosion killed five Israelis, as well as the Bulgarian bus driver, and injured several others. In a statement, Tsvetanov thus concludes that two of the three suspects behind the attack might be linked to the Lebanese Hezbollah.
According to Tsvetanov, the pair of suspects held genuine passports from Australia and Canada and have lived in Lebanon between 2006 and 2010. “We have established that the two were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah” he said, adding, “There is data showing the financing and connection between Hezbollah and the two suspects.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s reaction was almost immediate: “We strongly urge other governments around the world – and particularly our partners in Europe – to take immediate action to crack down on Hezbollah.”
So, there we go again. For years now, the United States and Israel have pressured the European Union to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, a move the EU has always resisted so far.
The Hezbollah blacklisting debate has long been a divisive issue. The United States, which has listed it as a terrorist organization in 1995, has been pushing the EU to do the same ever since. In 2005, the George W. Bush administration encouraged the Europeans to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization to no avail. In recent months, there has been mounting pressure again, especially from Israel and the United States. Last October, John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism advisor, criticized what he called ‘the failure’ of the EU to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
Hezbollah is both a military organization and a political party. It has two cabinet ministers in the Lebanese government and a dozen seats in the Lebanese Parliament. The core problem involved in the EU’s decision whether to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization is distinguishing between the group’s military and political wings. Some European governments indeed consider Hezbollah comprises a political wing which provides social services and an armed wing. Interestingly, this distinction is not recognized by the United States, most European governments, or even Hezbollah itself. The European Union is hence divided on the issue.
After the Bulgarian announcement, the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the EU would need to review the evidence before taking action. Speaking at a press conference on Feb. 5, Ashton commended the Bulgarian enquiry but stopped short of making a link with Hezbollah. She underlined the need for a reflection over the outcome of the investigation. “The EU and member states will discuss the appropriate response based on all elements identified by the investigators,” she said.
If the Bulgarians have established a link between the attack and the Hezbollah why would the EU need further evidence? Or maybe things are not as clear as they may appear to be? And in that case, why do some appear so keen on designating Hezbollah as being responsible for the explosion?
It all started barely an hour after the attack last year, when the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to accuse Hezbollah, which also means pointing finger at Iran. He declared, “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,” although he did not offer any evidence to back up his claim. The same day, the New York Times reported that “two other American officials confirmed that Hezbollah was behind the bombing, but declined to provide additional details.”
In other words, a few hours after the attack, when the investigation had only just started, Israelis and Americans were already pointing their finger at Hezbollah and his supporter Iran, providing no evidence whatsoever and declining to describe what specific intelligence led analysts to conclude that the bomber belonged to Hezbollah, making it all appear as if it was a forgone conclusion.
Then why was Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetanov so careful in his wording last Tuesday? Either the investigation is completed and the Bulgarians have clear evidence of the implication of the Lebanese movement in which case, they don’t need to be that cautious and can act upon their conclusions. Or they have nothing concrete to rely on, and in that case, they should continue their investigations.
None of the details provided by Tsvetanov involved evidence showing that two of the alleged conspirators belonged to Hezbollah or that Hezbollah had indeed financed the attack. The most important piece of evidence cited seemed to be the lengthy stays in Lebanon by two of the three alleged participants in the bombing, which is hardly any evidence. As for the identity of the bomber himself, he remains unknown, the minister added, even though his DNA samples have been shared with intelligence agencies in other nations but no DNA match has been found in their databases.
Instead the wording of the Bulgarian minister is very interesting, “A reasonable assumption, I repeat a reasonable assumption, can be made that the two of them were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah.” It appears to acknowledge that he was merely speculating on the basis of data that did not necessarily support that conclusion.
“It is a “hybrid,” to put it that way, and sounds like ‘Having your cake and eating it, too!’ Middle East expert Vladimir Chukov said in an interview with Sofia News Agency, adding, “Because the emphasis is not on Hezbollah’s involvement but on the military wing of Hezbollah, I suppose that this wording was suggested by London. The U.K. is the only nation that employs a similar approach. This means that it is the military wing who are the terrorists, not the politicians from the respective group. That way, as a whole, the Bulgarian government is trying to please both sides.”
The Bulgarian interior minister’s charge against Hezbollah based on little more than an assumption has raised the suspicion in Bulgaria that the government was under pressure from the United States and Israel to reach a conclusion that aligned with the Israeli-American position.
“It is obvious that Bulgaria’s government has chosen a political approach and is only repeating the interpretation alleged by Israel on the very next day following the attack, when the investigation had not even started”, opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Sergey Stanishev, declared, as reported by the Bulgarian news agency. “The investigation is currently underway and there is no way one can be talking about decisive evidence regarding the direct perpetrators, much less regarding the organization that is behind this tragic event.”
Another issue is, why does a suicide attack in Bulgaria send intelligence officers from Israel and the United States racing to identify the bomber? Bulgarian authorities said they were working with the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the Israeli intelligence services and Interpol. Most of them actually have a direct interest in blaming Hezbollah. Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetanov admitted Israel played a key role in the investigation, specifically thanked the Israeli government for its support and said Israel had provided “relevant expertise” in regard to one of the indicators implicitly cited as pointing to Hezbollah.
Again, the only details the Bulgarian Interior Minister provided reveal that the alleged link between the bomb suspects and Hezbollah was merely an “assumption” rather than a conclusion based on specific evidence. Then why does the American administration present the facts as if they had clear evidence of Hezbollah’s involvement? “The finding is clear and unequivocal: Lebanese Hezbollah was responsible for this deadly assault on European soil,” Secretary of State, John Kerry said in a press statement.
Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan also reacted as if the conclusion was undeniable, he said, “Today, following a thorough review of the evidence collected to date, Bulgarian authorities announced their judgment that Lebanese Hezbollah was responsible for carrying out this act of terrorism.”
And the fourth issue, according to the Bulgarian minister, there are three suspects involved in the attack. One has died in the explosion; the other two, although investigators did not release names, were identified as a man with an Australian passport, believed to be the bomb maker, and a man with a Canadian passport, both of whom lived in Lebanon. Where are these two suspects? How come no one has actually mentioned their whereabouts? Why does no one seem to care about where they are?
Fifth issue, Hezbollah’s responsibility in this attack defies common sense. Why would Hezbollah want to do that? What for? Hezbollah is born in 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Its military activity has generally been committed to the goal of ending the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon or attacks on it. In other words, it has always focused on domestic Lebanese affairs.
Israel refuses though to admit the link between the invasion of Lebanon and the creation of Hezbollah, because establishing a causal link between the two would legitimate Hezbollah’s action. Therefore, the Israelis would rather describe the Shia movement as naturally prone to terrorism, thereby legitimizing their interventions in Lebanon. The United States insists Hezbollah is a terrorist organization because of its alleged involvement in numerous suicide attacks; the fact is though that Hezbollah’s involvement in many of these attacks remains a matter of contention. And now, the U.S and Israel are trying again.
Convincing the world that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization would give Israel a free-hand in Lebanon. It could also have dire consequences: Hezbollah plays a very important political role; if the group is listed as a terrorist organization, this could lead Hezbollah politicians to pull out of the ruling coalition, meaning the end of the Lebanese government. This in turn could lead to renewed destabilization in Lebanon; at a time when Beirut is already confronted to a difficult situation because of the conflict in next door Syria, this could have a spill-over effect on the entire region.
As for Iran, given the already extremely tense situation between Tehran and the West over its nuclear program and given the fact that Israel seems all too willing to attack it, it seems difficult to believe that Iran would willingly have the world condemn it and cater to the wishes of the Israelis by providing them an excuse to attack.
Gilles de Kerchove, EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator, in a recent interview with Mint Press, said that before putting an organization on the list, “you need strong evidence that is has committed a terrorist attack; and then, you still need to ask yourself: is this the right thing to do?” The European Union is right in doubting. Hard evidence of Hezbollah’s involvement is clearly missing in the Burgas case.