The conviction of Hossam Taleb Yaacoub, who is due to be sentenced on March 28, will bolster calls by the United States and Israel for the European Union to set aside its longstanding reluctance to designate Hezbollah a terrorist group.
The 24-year-old suspect confessed during his trial in Limassol to being a member of the Iranian-sponsored Lebanese Shi’ite group, to undergoing military training, and to having carried out tasks including identifying locations in Cyprus where Israelis gather, and arranging the rental of a warehouse.
He was convicted on counts of participation in a criminal organization, preparation of a criminal act, and money laundering.
“Today’s verdict underscores the need for our European allies – and other governments around the world – to crack down on this deadly group and to send a strong message that Hezbollah can no longer operate with impunity, at home or abroad,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, welcoming the move.
The U.S. applauded the Cypriot government “for its professional investigation and successful conviction,” she said.
“Over the past year, we have seen Hezbollah engage in increasingly aggressive terrorist activity around the world. In July 2012, just two weeks after Yaacoub’s arrest, we witnessed the deadly impact of Hezbollah’s commitment to terrorism in Burgas, Bulgaria.”
A bus bombing in the Bulgarian resort town killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian national. A Bulgarian investigation concluded that Hezbollah members were behind the attack.
In a speech to an audience of young Israelis in Jerusalem on Thursday, President Obama cited the Bulgaria bombing victims and declared that “every country that values justice should call Hezbollah what it truly is – a terrorist organization.”
“Because the world cannot tolerate an organization that murders innocent civilians, stockpiles rockets to shoot at cities, and supports the massacre of men, women and children in Syria,” he said.
During his trial, Yaacoub admitted having undertaken earlier courier-type tasks for Hezbollah in Turkey, France and the Netherlands, traveling on a Swedish passport. (He holds dual Lebanese-Swedish nationality).
Cyprus, Bulgaria, France, the Netherlands and Sweden are all E.U. member states. The 26-member union has for years been divided over calls to list Hezbollah as a terror group, a move designed to cut off its funding sources in Europe.
Hezbollah participates in the Lebanese political system and, together with its allies, currently controls 16 of the 30 seats in Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s cabinet.
Worried that designation could add to Lebanon’s instability – and perhaps also fearful of attracting Iranian-backed terrorism themselves – some E.U. governments have argued that a distinction should be made between the group’s political and “military” wings. The U.S. draws no such distinction.
The Netherlands was outlawed Hezbollah as a single entity, and Britain designated Hezbollah’s “military wing” in 2008. France and Germany are viewed as reluctant to follow suit.
Over the past 12 months, a string of terror plots allegedly involving Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)–Qods Force were exposed – in Thailand, India, Kenya, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Cyprus, Bulgaria and, most recently, Nigeria.
Some of the plots were exposed before being carried out, although the wife of an Israeli defense attaché was seriously injured in a blast in New Delhi, and in Thailand the plot went awry after an apparently accidental explosion. The alleged plotters – Iranians – fled and one had his legs blown off after throwing several hand grenades.
Although Hezbollah’s biggest terror successes targeted Americans, Israelis and Argentineans, Europe has not been immune in past years. Among attacks or plots linked to Hezbollah in the past are 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.