Back in July, a suicide bomber killed six people, plus himself, at the Bulgarian resort town of Burgas. Five of the dead were Israelis, while the sixth was the driver of the incinerated bus (who was a Muslim). There are many curiosities about the case, not least that the still-unidentified bomber used a fake U.S. driver’s license.
From virtually the moment of the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his government have spoken with one voice: the Burgas atrocity was the work of Iran, using Hizballah as a cut-out. Israeli officials from the top placed the attack within the broader context of the widening war between Israel (and the U.S.) and Iran: espionage, cyberattacks, targeted killings, and now blowing up buses filled with holiday-goers. Yet the knotty question of who the suicide bomber actually was has remained unanswered, despite efforts by Bulgarian investigators and ample speculation.
Nearly as quickly as Israel pointed the finger at Iran, jihad-watchers speculated that the bomber was Mehdi Ghezali, a minor celebrity in European terrorist circles. Born in Sweden in 1979 to an Algerian father and a Finnish mother, the young Ghezali, like so many converts to violent extremism, was first a criminal. After doing hard time for a bank robbery, Ghezali went off and sought a new life in the ranks of Al-Qa’ida. Like several hundred other foreign fighters, he was picked up by the U.S. military in Afghanistan after Tora Bora at the end of 2001, and wound up imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. Ghezali’s case became well known, as one of the higher-profile European jihadists in U.S. custody, and he was released from GTMO in July 2004, heading home on a Swedish Air Force jet.
Once back in Sweden, Ghezali participated in anti-American demonstrations and claimed to be harassed by Swedish intelligence, even though local prosecutors never filed charges against him for his previous involvement with a terrorist group. Mysteriously, in August 2009, Ghezali was one of a dozen foreigners (three of them Swedes) arrested by Pakistani police on suspicion of ties with Al-Qa’ida. They unsurprisingly protested their innocence, asserting they were in Pakistan to meet with Tablighi Jamaat (a non-violent Salafi group – yes, there are such things). Upon his release from a jail cell and subsequent return to Sweden a couple months later, Ghezali resumed his complaints about being under surveillance by Swedish intelligence and since then has kept a low profile.
Although there was no doubt that the guy picked up on the Burgas Airport CCTV cameras and fingered as the bomber by Sofia bore more than a little resemblance to Mehdi Ghezali, neither was there any hard evidence to tie the jihadist to the crime – though his continuing silence raised questions. Yet Bulgarian and Swedish intelligence back in July asserted that Ghezali could not have been the bomber, and they have stuck with that story.
Nevertheless, Bulgaria’s lingering inability to say just who the suicide bomber actually was, coupled with Ghezali’s continuing silence, have given plausibility to the rumor that the “Cuban-Swede” (as the media in his home country dubbed him) actually might have been the killer. If Ghezali was the bomber, that raises many questions, not least the important and tricky one of what exactly is the relationship between Iran, Hizballah, and Al-Qa’ida. Although it’s long been known that AQ and Iranian types have talked to each other since the early 1990s – there’s a whole chapter in a really good book about that if you want to know more – and former CIA officer Bob Baer has explained that Iran and AQ were talking, usually through Hizballah, as far back as the mid-1990s. But evidence for a real operational relationship between Tehran and Bin Laden’s guys has always been less than firm. In that sense, tying a known AQ affiliate like Ghezali to Burgas – which few have plausibly argued wasn’t an Iranian operation – would be important.
Last week, the jihad star/groupie Omar Bakri – who actually knew Ghezali a few years ago – reignited the controversy with an interview with the Bulgarian media, which included this statement: “When I learned that they are linking this man to my people, I called my brothers in Great Britain to ask who the man in question is. They told me it was a boy known as Abu Ahmed … He had another alias. This man was indeed a student of mine, but for a short time. Then he left for Afghanistan. His name is Mehdi Ghezali. Because of the Burgas bombing, the brothers from al-Qa’ida declared him a martyr.”
All well short of the standards of evidence, of course, but it’s significant if muj street rumor has “Abu Ahmed” as the Burgas killer. A few days later, Bakri backed away from his statement, indicating that he’d been given a leading question, while a senior Bulgarian intelligence official reconfirmed that the bomber was not Ghezali, adding that Sofia is still trying to determine who did wear the suicide vest. From the day of the attack, Bulgarian authorities said they were looking for an accomplice who assisted the bomber, while this official added there was a hunt on for a third man who also participated in the planning of the attack, though the investigators seemed to know even less about him than about the other two, still unidentified, suspects. Adding to the mystery, Dr. Galina Mileva, who performed the autopsy on what was left of the bomber, told the press that the man was not Ghezali – without explaining where that conclusion came from – yet adding that the remains were those of a half-Arab, half-European … just like Mehdi Ghezali.
Adding to the mystery, the Bulgarian news outlet 24 Chasa (24 Hours) has filed a detailed report which shows that just one day after the Burgas atrocity, someone posted a video on YouTube hailing “Mehdi Ghezali Abu-Sabikh al-Jazairi” who “terrified the Jews.” The poster was one Irhabi 007 – funny guy: irhabi meaning “terrorist” in Arabic – who has posted a bunch of similar videos. (Jihad-watchers with long memories will recall that Irhabi 007 was also the online handle of Mirsad Bektasevic, AKA Maximus, a Bosnian who had settled in Sweden and plotted a whole bunch of attacks across Europe, which were happily thwarted by his 2005 arrest.)
The two-minute-forty video is typical muj porn (it’s linked in the 24 Chasa report): bad music, exhortations of martyrdom, plus a bunch of pictures of Ghezali’s life, photos of the murdered Israelis, images of the blown-up bus, and a general aura of gloating over the deaths of innocent people. Yet, low-budget production values aside, it’s undeniably impressive that someone managed to get it all together and post it online on 19 July, a mere day after the terrorist attack.
Someone clearly wanted to credit Mehdi Ghezali with this awful crime, whether he did it or not. As a former counterintelligence officer, I have questions …
Swedish authorities, who have had Ghezali under surveillance for years, could end this mystery quickly by letting everyone know, even without much detail, where the jihadist is hanging out these days. That they have not done so itself raises questions.
For now, the mystery of who bombed Burgas and took six innocent lives must linger.