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Who Done It?

Black smoke rises into the sky just after a bus with Israeli tourists is bombed in Burgas, Bulgaria on July 18 2012. The Bulgarian authorities asserted that Hezbollah was behind the attack during a press conference last week. Source:  Katya Yordanova/Press Association Images
Black smoke rises into the sky just after a bus with Israeli tourists is bombed in Burgas, Bulgaria on July 18 2012. The Bulgarian authorities asserted that Hezbollah was behind the attack during a press conference last week. Source: Katya Yordanova/Press Association Images

Depending on who you believe—or want to believe—the armed wing of Hezbollah was responsible for the bomb attack on an Israeli tour bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, in July 2012. Certainly, that is the line that Israel has been pushing from the very beginning and has reiterated over the past few days.

Last week, the Bulgarian government made its first major announcement on the findings of a Bulgarian investigation into the attack. The Bulgarian line was slightly more nuanced than the Israeli assertion: “A reasonable assumption—I repeat, a reasonable assumption—can be made that the two of them [the suspects] were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah,” said Bulgaria’s interior minister, Tsvetan Tsevtnov, last Tuesday.

“A reasonable assumption” is not quite the same as definitive proof. Yet it is rare to have definitive evidence rather than an assessment in predictive intelligence. At the time of the attack, US officials privately supported the Israeli view that Hezbollah and Iran were behind the bombing “based on intercepted communications,” according to the New York Times. In an interview with the Associated Press, Europol Director Rob Wainwright said, “Forensic evidence, intelligence sources and patterns in past attacks all point to Hezbollah’s involvement.” Europol, the organization responsible for coordinating national police forces across the European Union, sent analysts to Bulgaria to work on the investigation.

The initial assumption was that the operative who died in the explosion was a suicide bomber. However, Hezbollah has carried out very few suicide attacks since the 1980s, and tends to attack official US or Israeli targets. By contrast, mass-casualty suicide attacks have become a widespread Sunni tactic. Indeed, just before the attack, the Associated Press reported that:

A Norwegian man has received terrorist training from Al-Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen and is awaiting orders to carry out an attack on the West . . . Western intelligence officials have long feared such a scenario—a convert to Islam who is trained in terrorist methods and can blend in easily in Europe and the United States, traveling without visa restrictions.

Nonetheless, a Europol expert said the bomb was detonated remotely using a circuit board, according to the Associated Press interview. The use of a Remote Controlled Improvised Explosive Device (RCIED) actually makes it more likely that this was indeed a Hezbollah attack. Wainwright said that Europol investigators now believe the bomber never intended to die. This assessment ties up with an eyewitness account from the time. Gilat Colangi, one of the Israeli passengers on the bus, told Channel Two television in Israel, “He [the bomber] came over to the bus, pushed their bags aside and put his own bag down. They started to argue with him—and that’s when his operator, who saw them from a distance—activated the explosive.”

There are, however, several issues that do not make sense. Such a callous sacrifice of an operative is not unknown, but it is far rarer to sacrifice a bomb maker. Bomb makers are few and far between; they are an asset not to be risked, even by so large an organization as Hezbollah. Not only was the bomb maker apparently sent to Bulgaria, but he took part in the attack itself, chancing death or arrest and interrogation—a seemingly unnecessary risk. Far more sensible, if he is needed to make the bomb, would be to go in, assemble the device and leave before the attack is launched. There is no information available about the device itself, but explosive residue should be a further indicator as to the origin of the bomb—it is quite possible that black market explosives with which the Balkans are still awash were used.

Another curious development is the nature of the identity documents used by the team planning the attack. The Bulgarian interior minister told reporters that three people were involved in the attack, two of whom had genuine passports from Australia and Canada, and had lived in Lebanon since 2006. Tsvetan Tsevtnov told the New York Times that investigators discovered a forged driver’s license and a social security card in the village of Tsar Kaloyan, believed to belong to the fleeing suspects. DNA from the dead operative was found on the card, linking him to the other two suspects.

The man who was killed in the bomb blast—whose identity remains a mystery—had a fake Michigan driver’s license which had been fabricated in Lebanon. If they had access to a forger, why did the Canadian and the Australian use their own genuine passports? In particular, why did they not use fake documents once they had landed in Poland, and thus entered the Schengen zone? Further, why did they use forged documents to escape, but not to enter? The Director of Europol remarked on “the very strong, obvious links to Lebanon,” which is not the sort of thing a competent terrorist organization like Hezbollah’s armed faction would allow.

Who stands to gain from such a definite conclusion? Israel has a very clear interest in seeing the political and social service elements of Hezbollah blacklisted by the European Union. This would greatly hinder Hezbollah’s ability to raise funds and to lobby. Israel has been known to provide information intended to influence as much as to inform the West before. This may have been the case with WMD in Iraq: Shlomo Brom, a senior Israeli military intelligence officer at the time, has admitted that the Israeli assessment of Iraq may have been influenced by a desire to see Saddam Hussein toppled. In Bulgaria, Israeli forensic experts, as well as American investigators, weighed in on the case.

Bulgaria tries to maintain good relations with both the Arab world and Israel, and was very reticent to apportion blame. However, there were reports in mid-January 2012 that Bulgaria and Israel had signed military accords for joint army trainings and defense industry cooperation. After the bomb attack, the headline in the New York Times read, “After Bus Bombing, Bulgaria’s Ties With Israel Are at Risk.” Such a risk may be the reason why Bulgaria made a more definitive statement than the evidence may suggest.

It is possible that Hezbollah carried out the attack, despite the above misgivings. It is also possible that the Canadian and the Australian were loaned to the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), which has been linked to attacks on Israeli officials, in reprisal for the assassination of Iranian scientists. MOIS have contracted out a number of attacks over the past year, several of which have not gone according to plan. It is also just possible—although highly unlikely—that this is a false-flag operation designed to discredit Hezbollah. However, one thing is certain: no one knows for sure ‘who done it.’

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James Spencer
James Spencer is a London-based independent consultant specializing in the political and security issues of the Middle East


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