Bulgaria’s interim prime minister Marin Raikov announced today that his government will present new evidence linking Hezbollah to the July 2012 in Burgas, Bulgaria that killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian. Bulgarian government officials announced in February that they had found proof that two of the suspects in the bombing had ties to Hezbollah.
Domestic unrest over energy prices subsequently brought down the then-governing coalition, and a caretaker government currently leads the country. Officials from the caretaker government promised in recent weeks that they would pile on evidence tying the Iran-backed group to the attack.
Also today, a court in Cyprus sentenced a confessed Hezbollah member to four years in prison after he was convicted of terrorism-related charges. Hossam Taleb Yaacoub, 24, had admitted to observing Israeli flights landing in Cyprus, monitoring the movement of Israelis there, and planning to transfer that information to an unnamed source in Lebanon. He denied, however, that he was participating in plotting an attack. The court found differently, and he was convicted on five charges, including participating in a criminal organization, taking part in a criminal act, and money laundering. He has ten days to appeal his sentence.
According to court testimony, the defendant is a Swedish-Lebanese citizen who carried out intelligence work in France and the Netherlands on Hezbollah’s behalf. He was arrested just days before the Burgas bombing in Bulgaria. Cypriot officials emphasized that though the plot was foiled, the terrorism was real:
“There is no doubt that these are serious offences because by committing them, at the very least it potentially jeopardised the safety of Israeli citizens and targets on the territory of the Cyprus Republic,” the court ruled. “Even if the targets were not carried out, it still harms the security of citizens and the legal system, whose guardian is the court,” it added… His trial heard that Hezbollah had ordered him to carry out six missions on Cyprus since December 2011, and that he was paid a total of $4,800 by the powerful group.
The European Union has thus far resisted calls from the U.S., Bulgaria, the U.K, and Israel to formally designate the group as a terrorist entity, with analysts linking the reluctance to French and German fears that Hezbollah will target their interests. The combination of the Bulgarian investigation and the Cyprus verdict will bring renewed pressure to bear on the union to acknowledge that a group which executes multiple terror plots on E.U. soil ought, for the purposes of the E.U, be considered a terrorist group:
The evidence that led to Yaacoub’s conviction helps tip the balance toward listing Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, diplomats from two leading European Union member states told JTA. Hezbollah already is considered a terrorist group by the United States, Israel and several other countries. “Our position is that we’ve always said that if we have proof that holds up in court, we can enter the procedure,” said Karl-Matthias Klause, the spokesman for the German Embassy in Washington. “There is a general readiness into looking into forbidding the military wing of Hezbollah.”
The other diplomat, whose country has been among those resisting such a classification, said the Cyprus conviction would make it harder not to classify Hezbollah as a terrorist group. “Bulgaria and Cyprus changes the equation,” said the diplomat, who insisted on anonymity. “The topic becomes one of European solidarity.”
U.S. officials, for their part, consider the issue relatively straightforward. Per David Cohen, the Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence:
“Hezbollah has been designated as a Global Terrorist by the United States since 1995 for a long history of terrorist attacks against American citizens and officials, including the bombing of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon during the 1980s. Before al-Qaida’s attack on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, Hezbollah was responsible for killing more Americans in terrorist attacks than any other terrorist group… Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah have for years painted their organization as a social and political party as well as a resistance movement; however, their activities and statements clearly paint a different picture. Hezbollah has consistently used terrorist operations to attack civilians.”
President Barack Obama explicitly called on Europe to designate Hezbollah when he was in Israel earlier this month. Hezbollah, via Iranian state TV, lashed out in response: