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Bulgaria Links Hezbollah To Deadly Attack On Israelis

Feb 5, 2013
Originally published on February 10, 2013 8:51 am

Bulgarian authorities say they have evidence the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah financed and carried out a bomb attack at a Black Sea resort town last year, killing five Israeli tourists and one Bulgarian citizen.

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov said it was an extremely intensive investigation.

"The results of that investigation leads to a number of persons who are connected to the military wing of Hezbollah," he said.

The suspects include two people who carried Canadian and Australian passports. Mladenov told BBC World that this is something the EU needs to consider seriously.

"We should discuss all measures that we need to do collectively to make sure that we can protect ourselves from terrorist attacks in the future," he said.

The White House picked up that same line, saying Bulgaria's investigation shows that Hezbollah is a "real and growing threat not only to Europe, but to the rest of the world."

Secretary of State John Kerry condemned Hezbollah and said the U.S. was working to curtail the group's activities.

"We strongly urge other governments around the world — and particularly our partners in Europe — to take immediate action to crack down" on Hezbollah, he said in a statement. "We need to send an unequivocal message to this terrorist group that it can no longer engage in despicable actions with impunity."

Matthew Levitt, a former Treasury Department official who has dealt with these issues, says it would be significant if Europe agrees to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

"Right now, Hezbollah is able to raise funds in most European countries overtly, like the Red Cross," said Levitt, who now runs the counterterrorism program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "And there's nothing illegal about it."

Some countries make a distinction between the military and political wings of Hezbollah, which is part of the government in Lebanon. France worries that putting Hezbollah on a terrorism list could further destabilize Lebanon, but Levitt warns that Hezbollah's activities are on the rise, and European law enforcement officials need new tools to go after the group.

"The attack that succeeded was not the first time Hezbollah tried to do this, and not the first time it tried to do it in Bulgaria," Levitt said. "Six months earlier, a Hezbollah squad trying to target Israeli tourists on their way to a ski resort in Bulgaria were thwarted; and just a week before this attack in Bulgaria last July, another Hezbollah operative was arrested in Cyprus, where he was conducting the same kind of surveillance."

Levitt, who has written a soon-to-be-published book tracing Hezbollah's activities around the world, says U.S. counterterrorism officials are increasingly worried about the Lebanese militant group and its use by Iran as a proxy.

"There's a lot going on right now, and when I talk to U.S. officials, they tell me that on some days the No. 1, 2 or 3 — and sometimes all three — of the top things being briefed to senior officials are not only or just Sunni al-Qaida-type jihad anymore. It's Iran ... and Hezbollah."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also warned that Iran and Hezbollah are building, as he puts it, a worldwide terrorist network.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

U.S. officials believe their case against the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has gotten stronger. After a long investigation, authorities in Bulgaria say they have evidence that Hezbollah financed and carried out a bomb attack at a Black Sea resort town last year. The explosion killed five Israeli tourists and one Bulgarian citizen. American officials say this has exposed Hezbollah for what it is, quote, "a terrorist group that's willing to recklessly attack innocent men, women and children."

The United States and Israel have been trying to persuade the European Union to agree with that designation. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov says it was an extremely intensive investigation.

NIKOLAY MLADENOV: The results of that investigation leads to a number of persons who are connected to the military wing of Hezbollah.

KELEMEN: They include two suspects who carried Canadian and Australian passports. Mladenov told the BBC that this is something the EU needs to consider seriously.

MLADENOV: We should discuss all measures that we need to do collectively to make sure that we can protect ourselves from terrorist attacks in the future.

KELEMEN: The White House picked up that same line, saying Bulgaria's investigation shows that Hezbollah is a, quote, "real and growing threat not only to Europe, but to the rest of the world." State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland says the U.S. hopes this will galvanize countries in Europe to take what she calls proactive actions.

VICTORIA NULAND: To uncover infrastructure, to disrupt groups and financing schemes of Hezbollah and its networks to prevent future attacks.

KELEMEN: A former treasury department official who has dealt with these issues says it would be significant if Europe agrees to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Matthew Levitt now runs the counterterrorism program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

MATTHEW LEVITT: Right now, Hezbollah is able to raise funds in most European countries overtly, like the Red Cross. There's nothing illegal about it.

KELEMEN: Some countries make a distinction between the military and political wings of Hezbollah, which is part of the government in Lebanon. France worries that putting Hezbollah on a terrorism list could further destabilize Lebanon. But Levitt warns that Hezbollah's activities are on the rise and European law enforcement officials need new tools to go after them.

LEVITT: The attack that succeeded was not the first time Hezbollah tried to do this and not the first time it tried to do this in Bulgaria. Six months earlier, a Hezbollah squad trying to target Israeli tourists on their way to a ski resort in Bulgaria, were thwarted. And just a week before this attack in Bulgaria last July, another Hezbollah operative was arrested in Cyprus, where he was conducting the same kind of surveillance.

KELEMEN: Levitt - who has written a soon to be published book tracing Hezbollah's activities around the world - says U.S. counter terrorism officials have been increasingly worried about the Lebanese militant group and its use by Iran as a proxy.

LEVITT: There's a lot going on right now and when I talk to U.S. officials they tell me that on some days the number one, two or three and sometimes all three of the senior things, top things, being briefed to senior officials are not only or just Sunni al-Qaida-type jihad anymore. It's Iran, the Quds force and Hezbollah.

KELEMEN: Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu also speaks about this in alarmist terms, warning that Iran and Hezbollah are building - as he puts it - a worldwide terrorist network. Michele Kelemen, NRP News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.