By Toby Dershowitz and Dylan Gresik
September 21, 2020
At 5:23 p.m. on July 18, 2012, a deadly explosion rocked Bulgaria’s Sarafavo airport near the Black Sea town of Burgas, killing five Jewish Israeli tourists and their Muslim Bulgarian bus driver. Dozens of other Israelis and Bulgarians were wounded as body parts and blood flew across the airport. After eight years, a modicum of justice for the victims may be in sight. On Monday, the country’s Specialized Criminal Court, following a trial in absentia, will likely find two Hezbollah operatives—Meliad Farah and Hassan El Hajj Hassan, for whom Interpol has wanted notices—culpable for the attack.
But justice can’t be fully served unless Hezbollah itself, which masterminded the bombing, is held accountable by Bulgaria, the European Union and the global community.
The Bulgarian government’s own exhaustive investigation, conducted in coordination with Europol, the United States, Canada, Australia and Israel after the attack, found decisive evidence that Hezbollah’s external security unit provided both logistical and financial backing for the bombing.
Bulgaria’s then-interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said at the time, “There is data showing the financing and connection between Hezbollah and the two suspects.” Rob Wainwright, then-executive director of Europol, said he backed the Bulgarians’ conclusion that Hezbollah was involved.
According to investigators, the explosives used in the attack were linked to a bomb ingredient stored by Hezbollah in Cyprus: ammonium nitrate. Ammonium nitrate is the same chemical compound that produced the devastating explosion at the port of Beirut in early August. Investigations are underway in Lebanon to see if Hezbollah was connected to or sought to exploit the dangerous stockpile.
And it’s the same explosive material used by Hezbollah in the 1994 bombing of Argentina’s AMIA Jewish community center, which killed 85 Argentinians.
Ambassador Nathan Sales, U.S. coordinator for counterterrorism at the Department of State, announced on Thursday that since 2012, Hezbollah has moved and stored caches of ammonium nitrate throughout Europe, including in France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.
“Why would Hezbollah stockpile ammonium nitrate on European soil?” Sales asked in an online event with German state secretary at the federal ministry of the interior Hans-Georg Engelke and former U.K. home secretary Sajid Javid. “The answer is clear. Hezbollah put these weapons in place so it could conduct major terrorist attacks whenever it—or its masters in Tehran—deemed necessary.”
Engelke, confirming the seizure of “ammonium nitrate, in substantial amounts, in southern Germany,” said the amount “really worried” authorities. This evidence follows the discovery of over three metric tons of ammonium nitrate in London and over eight tons in Cyprus in 2015 alone.
Bulgaria has established that Iran-backed Hezbollah bankrolled and provided logistical support for the 2012 Burgas bombing. Initially, notwithstanding evidence of Hezbollah’s role, the public defender assigned to the accused asserted, inexplicably, that no evidence of Hezbollah’s role was presented by the prosecution. But on August 31 of this year, the nation’s prosecutor general, Ivan Geshev, told the press, “It’s no secret that behind this terrorist act stands as logistics and funding, according to the supervising prosecutors and the evidence gathered by them, the Hezbollah organization.” Geshev said, however, that Bulgarian law does not permit legal entities or organizations to be indicted.
With the Bulgarian government affirming Hezbollah’s role, how will it ensure the Iranian proxy is held accountable for the terrorist attack on its soil? Will Bulgaria and the EU now join the many countries that have formally designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization—a measure that can freeze funds and assets, end fundraising, shutter front companies, and impose severe travel restrictions?
Bulgaria already has a mechanism in place to do so. Bulgaria can add Hezbollah to a list of individuals and entities subject to the Measures Against the Financing of Terrorism Act, a law adopted in 2003. Included on the country’s terrorism list are Al-Qaeda, affiliates of the Taliban, Hamas, the Izz Al-Din Al-Qassem Brigade and Palestinian Islamic Jihad among others. In 2016, Bulgaria added Farah and El Hajj Hassan to the list, even before their trial was completed.
In some ways, the Burgas case is similar to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which prosecuted in absentia a handful of Hezbollah operatives for the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, but did not hold Hezbollah itself accountable.