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A Bombing in Burgas

July 19, 2012

Another suicide bombing in Europe, this time in – of all places – Bulgaria. Yesterday, an as-yet-unidentified bomber got on a bus filled with Israeli tourists and killed himself, five tourists (earlier reports said six but this morning Israeli authorities have dropped that by one), and the local bus driver; many more were wounded. Tragedy has arrived at the seaside town of Burgas, 250 miles east of the capital Sofia, which has become in recent years a getaway for Israelis.

Bulgarian officials, who are working closely with U.S. and Israeli partners to get to the bottom of this quickly, have asserted that the bomber possessed a fake U.S. driver’s license. Israel has wasted no time pointing a finger at its arch-nemesis Iran, claiming this was Tehran’s operation using Hizballah as a cut-out.

Within hours of the atrocity, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu explicitly blamed Iran, adding, “Iranian terror is spreading worldwide.”  Defense Minister Ehud Barak promised the customary payback, while this morning Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, never one for subtle words,  stated that Iran’s culpability for the attack was “crystal clear,” and that the rapid identification was “certain,” without explaining what evidence that conclusion was based upon.

Though Iran has, of course, denied involvement, Tehran certainly has the means, motive, and opportunity, not to mention a track record of doing just this sort of thing. In recent months, Iranian operatives, or their surrogates, have tried to blow up Israelis in India, Georgia, and Thailand, while it’s tough to write off as a mere coincidence that the Burgas atrocity fell eighteen years to the day of the 1994 AMIA bombing, when Hizballah operatives blew up a Jewish center in Buenos Aires on behalf of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the feared Pasdaran. That spectacular killed 85 and wounded hundreds and caused such blowback for Iran that it backed away from terrorism in Latin America for years.

What about Burgas? The not-so-secret secret war that’s been brewing between Iran and Israel in recent years has been spilling out all over the place. Iran has repeatedly pointed the finger at Netanyahu & Co. for the killings of its nuclear scientists, mysterious explosions, plus major cyber attacks against its defense infrastructure, with American help – which sounded rather conspiratorial, until someone in the Obama administration admitted that the U.S. and Israel really are behind the cyber-shenanigans.

As pointed out today by Uzi Arad, the former Israeli national security adviser, the current shadow war between Tehran and Tel Aviv began in February 2008, with the Israeli assassination of Imad Mughniyah, Hizballah’s longtime operations boss and a top Pasdaran officer (and the world’s leading terrorist for more than two decades; Osama was never the varsity), and since then Iran has retaliated repeatedly and by now the lethal tit-for-tat has taken on a momentum all its own.

So the odds on Iranian culpability for yesterday’s crime are good, particularly given Tehran’s involvement with low-rent and downright kooky terrorist efforts of late, but there are mitigating factors. First, Iran and Hizballah historically haven’t been a big concern in Bulgaria. Security officials in Sofia have usually rated them pretty low-down on the pecking order of threats (the last time Iranian intelligence was in Bulgarian news for violence was back in 1993 when an Iranian operative was killed by local mafiosi in a gunfight; Tehran’s man was either a spy moonlighting as a drug baron, or a drug baron moonlighting as a spy).

Moreover, the Balkans aren’t known for suicide bombings – that’s more of a London thing, really – while Iran’s once impressive terror infrastructure in Southeastern Europe has been whittled down in recent years. Back in the 1990s, Tehran built up a robust  intelligence posture in the Balkans, with hundreds of Pasdaran operatives serving in Bosnia during that country’s civil war (this was a story mostly ignored by U.S. media but there’s a fabulous book on the subject if you want to know the facts). But after some missteps, including getting caught using Hizballah as a cut-out to try and blow up the U.S. Embassy in Croatia in 1995, Iran gradually reduced its networks in the region. While Tehran still maintains a noteworthy intelligence presence in the Balkans, they generally have kept a lower profile, particularly since 9/11. They – like Al-Qa’ida – consider the Balkans to be a safe haven of sorts in Europe, not a major operational venue.

Until, perhaps, now. If Tehran is behind the Burgas atrocity, that says something significant about Iran’s increasing willingness to go ugly in the shadow war with Israel. That the still-quite-revolutionary revolutionary regime might do this while the U.S. Navy is significantly increasing its assets in the Persian Gulf speaks to Tehran’s unwillingness to back down in the face of Western military might.

This will likely get interesting, and dangerous, perhaps a good deal quicker than many are expecting. Let’s see what evidence the Israelis come up with to match this week’s claims of Iranian terrorism.

UPDATE: While the Bulgarian foreign minister has pronounced that it’s “wrong and a mistake” to blame anyone at this point in the Burgas investigation, a noted Israeli defense analyst has stated, “Netanyahu wants to turn the Israeli intelligence failure over Bulgaria into an excuse to strike Iran,” noting that it took Bibi a whole two hours to point the finger at Tehran yesterday.

UPDATE 2.0: While the Israeli media today generally endorses the government’s view that the Burgas attack probably was the work of Hizballah (read: Tehran), many commentators are counseling caution – unlike the Netanyahu cabinet – before Israel retaliates: “given the current situation in the Middle East, which is both uncertain and sensitive, much thought should be invested here,” says Ron Ben-Yishai.

UPDATE 3,0: Senior U.S. official confirms to NYT that American intelligence believes that the Burgas bomber was part of a Hizballah cell operating in Bulgaria, and this was Iranian “tit for tat” against Israel for recent attacks on Iranian interests, though no specific intelligence supporting that conclusion has been cited.

From → Espionage, Terrorism

4 Comments
  1. Nikolas Gvosdev permalink

    John, first, congratulations on the blog. Second, a larger question: how effective do you see the “shadow campaign” — in other words, is it a lower-cost and just-as-effective way to achieve national goals, or does it end up being a lot of harassment without much effectiveness. If, given your timeline, the shadow war heated up in 2008–after it became clear in late 2007 that an overt U.S.-Israel strike on Iran, something which sources indicate the vice president was an advocate of, was not going to happen, do we have a sense as to whether Iran has really been affected, its program slowed down, etc.

    I raise this because the shadow war fits into a larger pattern of trying to find low cost ways of “compellence” short of massive uses of force–so cyber strikes, drone campaigns, etc. It’s clear that there is an effect–but can we begin to quantify it and say that the wars of the future are more likely to be shadowy wars of assassins rather than traditional conflicts?

    • Thanks, Nick! I’ll give you the evasive short answer: It depends.

      I think the killing of Mughniyah was a huge benefit to Israel and beyond, given what a prolific terrorist boss he’d been since 1982. That said, Mughniyah had been a lot less active in the decade or so before his death. Nevertheless, his timely end dealt a huge blow to Hizballah, terrorism-wise, from which they’ve not yet fully recovered. Which means something to Tehran.

      Covert ops, up to and including assassinations, are a valuable tool of statecraft provided it’s done right. Which it often isn’t. In the 1970s and ’80s the Israelis did a lot of more subtle targeted killings against the PLO, but beginning in the 1990s they’ve gone more for drones and airstrikes with the occasional old school hit (which doesn’t always go right – whoops).

      Whether ANY of this meets any of Israel’s strategic needs, as opposed to more tactical ones, is an open question which no one in Tel Aviv (or DC) seems eager to take up in detail. Indeed, you could make a compelling case that by killing off much of the PLO leadership in the 1970s and ’80s all the Israelis really did was radicalize the survivors and indirectly open the door for HAMAS.

  2. Peter Forster permalink

    Excellent post and good discussion around the realities of targeted killings, John. To the point at hand, I have little doubt that we can anticipate some form of Israeli response albeit again targeting Hizballah although we may rule out a less targeted strike on Hizballah facilities in Lebanon. The pressing question that comes to mind is: what are the miscalculations or thresholds over which one or the other other will step that ignites a more direct conflict?

    Really like the blog.

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