Secretary of State John Kerry quickly urged “other governments around the world – and particularly our partners in Europe – to take immediate action to crack down on Hezbollah.”
“We need to send an unequivocal message to this terrorist group that it can no longer engage in despicable actions with impunity,” he said.
The U.S. and Israel have for years called on the E.U. to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, but when pressed E.U. officials have said they need proof of its terrorist activity. Many member governments also differentiate between Hezbollah’s political and “military” activity.
After a lengthy investigation, Bulgaria’s government on Tuesday implicated the Lebanese Shi’ite group in the bombing of a bus in the Black Sea resort town of Burgas. Five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian were killed in the blast.
The first official E.U. reaction to Bulgaria’s announcement was a cautious one.
“The implications of the investigation need to be assessed seriously as they relate to a terrorist attack on E.U. soil, which resulted in the killing and injury of innocent civilians,” a spokesman for foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement.
“The high representative [Ashton] condemns all terrorist acts, wherever they take place, and emphasizes that the E.U. and member states are committed to the fight against terrorism, whoever stands behind it. The terrorists who planned and carried out the Burgas attack must be brought to justice,” the statement said.
“The high representative underlines the need for a reflection over the outcome of the investigation. The E.U. and member states will discuss the appropriate response based on all elements identified by the investigators.”
But his Cypriot counterpart, Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis, noted there was “no consensus among the E.U. member states for putting Hezbollah on the terrorist list.”
“Should there be tangible evidence of Hezbollah engaging in acts of terrorism, the E.U. would consider listing the organization,” Kozakou-Marcoullis told Lieberman.
Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said two of the people who organized the attack were holders of an Australian and a Canadian passport but resident in Lebanon since 2006.
“The supposition that the two identified persons belonged to Hezbollah’s military wing is not unwarranted,” the Sofia News Agency quoted him as saying.
“We have data suggesting that the attack has been financed by Hezbollah,” Tsvetanov added.
The minister’s reference to “Hezbollah’s military wing” rather than simply “Hezbollah” may be significant, given the position of some European governments that Hezbollah’s political and “armed wing” activities should be treated separately. Hezbollah and its allies control 16 of the 30 seats in Lebanon’s cabinet.
The U.S., Israel, Canada and the Netherlands list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization while Britain – drawing a distinction between the group’s various activities – lists its “armed wing.”
“Our view is that we don’t recognize a distinction,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland reiterated during a press briefing Tuesday.
E.U. terrorist designation would disrupt Hezbollah’s fundraising activities by making it illegal to for any European to send money to the group.
“We have long designated Hezbollah, as have some others,” Nuland said. “Our concern is that in the context of our squeezing them, they look for other places to do their banking, to do their plotting, etcetera, and our concern has been that Europe has been one of the places that they have exploited, if you will.”
White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan urged European and other governments “to take proactive action to uncover Hezbollah’s infrastructure and disrupt the group’s financing schemes and operational networks in order to prevent future attacks.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said failure to designate Hezbollah “will only give these killers the opportunity to further organize, recruit, raise funds, and carry out additional terrorist attacks across the continent.”
Kerry noted the Bulgaria bombing “bears striking similarities to other disrupted plots of the last year.”
Among a series of incidents allegedly involving Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–Qods Force were exposed bomb plots in Cyprus, Kenya, Azerbaijan and Georgia; and bombings in Thailand and India.
An earlier plot, also disrupted, involved plans to carry out attacks on American soil, beginning with the assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
Set up with Iran’s assistance in the early 1980s, Hezbollah has been listed by the U.S. as a “foreign terrorist organization” ever since FTO designation was first established under 1996 legislation.
Major acts of terrorism attributed to the group, in conjunction with Iran, include 1983 suicide bombings in Beirut on targets including the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Marine barracks that killed more than 300; and the bombing of the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina in 1992 and 1994, in which 114 people were killed.
The Burgas bombing is not the first terror plot attack in Europe linked to Hezbollah.
Earlier ones include a series of bombings in Paris in 1986, which killed 13; an unsuccessful attempt to carry out attacks in Cyprus in 1988; a plot, foiled by Spanish police, to carry out attacks against Jewish targets in Europe in 1989; an unsuccessful attempt to detonate a car bomb outside a Jewish community building in Romania in 1992; and a planned 1996 attack, also foiled by police, on an Israeli institution in Paris.