Two of the most important questions now, after Bulgaria said that the investigation into the terrorist bomb attack on Israeli tourists at Bourgas Airport points to people from Hezbollah’s military wing, are, first what is it exactly that we know, and what happens next about the question of the EU declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organisation.
After the February 5 2013 meeting of the Consultative Council on National Security, Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov was given clearance to speak publicly about the main findings of the investigation so far.
Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov held briefings for, respectively, Arab state and European Union ambassadors in Sofia.
Since then, however, others have spoken in public about the investigation. From these various statements, some facts may be gleaned and assembled in one place. This list is assembled according to the criteria that the statements were made by people in official positions and privy to the investigation, and ignores claims in media reports, domestic or foreign.
First, the investigation is still proceeding and while Bulgaria has been cautious about pointing fingers, Sofia is firm in saying that it has concrete evidence leading to people involved in the military wing of Hezbollah. (For the record, Hezbollah denies involvement and has, somewhat predictably, alleged that the attack was a false-flag operation by Israel itself.)
Second, two of those involved in the attack entered Bulgaria three weeks before the July bombing, using their genuine passports – Australian and Canadian, respectively. According to Tsvetanov, they passed through “EU countries” on their way to Bulgaria.
The identities of the accomplices are known to investigators in Bulgaria but a decision has been made not to announce these publicly.
Once in Bulgaria, they rented vehicles and booked into hotels offering as identification false Michigan driving licences that had been forged in Lebanon.
The suicide bomber may not have been a suicide bomber in the sense of detonating the explosives. Investigator Georgi Iliev has told public broadcaster Bulgarian National Radio that the explosives probably were detonated remotely using a radio signal. According to Tsvetanov, the device that was believed to have been used in the terrorist attack had a range of about 10 metres in flat terrain.
Investigations into the radio device and the nature and quantity of the explosives used are continuing. Test explosions aboard two buses bought for purposes are planned for the spring.
According to EU police agency Europol, “early assumptions in the investigation were that the attack was the work of a suicide bomber. But analysis 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.
Meanwhile, forensic and technical examination of identity documents linked to the investigation led Europol to establish that a US driving licence recovered at the crime scene and another recovered elsewhere in Bulgaria were both counterfeits from the same source, located in Lebanon. This discovery was of major importance to the investigation.”
According to Stanimir Florov, head of Bulgaria’s General Directorate for Combating Organised Crime, it was not known whether the site of the blast at Bourgas Airport had been in the initial plan. Investigators had information that the group had scouted hotels.
The accomplices had resided in Lebanon. Florov said on February 6 that their current location was known, but would not be disclosed (subsequently, on February 7, it was, when Kamen Kostadinov, head of Parliament’s committee on the State Agency for National Security said that there was a reasonable basis to believe that the suspects were in Lebanon).
Lebanon has been approached for co-operation in the investigation and its prime minister, Najib Mikati, has said that this would be given.
The identity of the terrorist who died in the explosion still eludes investigators.
Europol said that “with the assistance of Europol and a number of other international partners the Bulgarian authorities have made substantial progress in the investigation, leading them to uncover the identity of the suspects and their possible link to Hezbollah. Although a final determination of responsibility has not been made Europol’s findings in the case are consistent with this view.”
On February 7, Kostadinov, speaking after the committee was presented with a report from the State Agency for National Security, said that after the disclosures by the government on February 5, there was no specific reason to consider that there was a heightened threat to national security.
At EU level
Bulgaria’s assertion that its investigation leads to people from the military wing of Hezbollah has put the issue of placing Hezbollah on the EU’s terrorist list very much “back in play” according to an Israeli diplomatic official quoted in Israeli media reports.
According to the Jerusalem Post, Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amidror has been busy in the past few days drumming up support for putting Hezbollah on the EU’s terror list, a step that the bloc adamantly has not taken for nearly two decades.
According to Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry, Nikolai Mladenov would discuss the report to the Consultative Council on National Security with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton while Mladenov was in Brussels for a European Council meeting.
It was not expected that the European Council meeting would have any formal discussions on the Hezbollah question. The earliest possible EU-level discussion could be at a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers scheduled for February 18. In any case, a decision requires the unanimous consent of all EU member states, implying formal mandates in 27 individual countries. Of the 27, the Netherlands labels Hezbollah a terrorist organisation while the UK blacklists its military wing.
Before the European Council meeting, Ashton had said only that the EU needed “to assess the implications of the investigation”.
According to a report by the European Jewish Press, Ashton’s spokesperson, Maja Kocijancic, the EU would look into “several options”. Placement on the terrorist list was one “but not the only one”.
“There are also actions that can be taken through various channels including, for example, through Europol, Eurojust, judicial action, political and diplomatic measures, and so on,” she was quoted as saying.
Washington’s position is clear, both through its own official position listing Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, the December 2012 senate resolution calling on European countries to do the same and the recent call by the US’s new secretary of state, John Kerry, for Europe to crack down on Hezbollah.
Any decision by the EU, in reality, is neither likely to be swift nor taken without taking into account a number of considerations, including concerns in some quarters about retaliation, and also considering the factor of Iran (like Syria), a significant sponsor of Hezbollah.
Israel, meanwhile, will continue to press its argument. As the same Israeli diplomatic official put it, Israel’s point is that if there is no strong European diplomatic reaction, then Hezbollah essentially will have immunity.