On the trail of Hizbullah and Iran

Burgas airport sign. Photo Flick user ztephen

Israel has blamed a deadly bus bombing at Burgas airport in Bulgaria on Iran and Hizbullah, but local authorities say they are still investigating who’s responsible

By Nigel Inkster, Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk

Both under pressure, Iran and Hizbullah seem to be involved in a ‘shadow war’ with Israel. Iran’s economy is suffering from international sanctions imposed because of concerns over its nuclear programme, and the risk of an Israeli military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, possibly before the US presidential election, remains a real possibility. Its ally Hizbullah, the powerful Lebanese Shia group founded in the 1980s with Iranian backing, is also concerned about the possible demise of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which could cut off vital supply lines to Iran.

Iran has linked Israel (and the United States) to the deaths of five Iranian nuclear scientists since 2007. Meanwhile, Iran and Hizbullah have been implicated in more than half a dozen incidents targeting Israeli, Saudi Arabian and US interests.

Iran has been accused of masterminding an assassination plot against the Saudi Ambassador in Washington DC, while Hizbullah has been reportedly involved attempts to attack US diplomats and other targets in Azerbaijan, the possession of a huge stash of bomb-making chemicals, as well as car bombings aimed at diplomatic officials in Georgia and India (the latter of which injured the wife of an Israeli diplomat seriously).

Several of those captured after an apparently accidental explosion in Bangkok carried Iranian passports, while the recent bombing of a bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, which killed five Israeli tourists (and the Bulgarian bus driver) and injured more than 30, has been variously blamed on Iran and/or Hizbullah. The Bulgarian authorities say they are still investigating who’s responsible.

From its beginning, Hizbullah has been associated with terrorist activities inside and outside Lebanon. After 9/11, the Hizbullah leadership made a conscious effort to reduce the movement’s involvement in transnational terrorism, conducted via its External Security Organisation arm, and to focus more on Lebanese internal politics. The 2006 war with Israel did nothing to minimise Hizbullah’s hostility to Israel but did in the short term reduce its appetite for direct confrontation.

What principally reactivated Hizbullah’s engagement in transnational terrorism was the assassination in Damascus, of one of its military leaders, Imad Mugniyeh, on 12 February 2008. Mugniyeh had been responsible for many of Hizbullah’s most prominent attacks, including the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, and an attack two years later on a Jewish centre in the same city.

Although Israel formally denied responsibility for Mugniyeh’s death it was widely assumed that the assassination had been carried out by the Israeli intelligence service Mossad. Speaking at Mugniyeh’s funeral Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah proclaimed an ‘open war’ on Israel, saying that ‘Mugniyeh’s blood will lead to the elimination of Israel’. It is noteworthy that several recent attacks attributed to Hizbullah since then including have coincided with the anniversary of Mugniyeh’s death, or the anniversary of the major attacks he masterminded.

Though initially financed by Iran and still dependent on Iranian support for the heavy weaponry which has established as a strategic player in the region, Hizbullah has had a nuanced relationship with the Iranian regime and has always put its own interests ahead of those of its patron. But Hizbullah’s renewed willingness to engage in transnational terrorism has coincided with a seemingly renewed appetite by Iran to undertake terrorist attacks against Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia.

For Iran the catalyst appears to have been the assassinations of its nuclear scientists. These attacks have been attributed to the Iranian Baloch separatist group Jundullah with support from Israel. (One report even suggests that Mossad ‘false-flagged’ itself as the CIA while recruiting Jundullah for this task.) On Sunday, Iran state TV broadcast ‘confessions’ by 14 Iranian suspects, some of whom claimed they had received training in Israel.

Although the US has charged two men in relation to the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States, there been some scepticism about Iran’s claimed role in the affair, particularly the idea that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps might have links to Mexican drug cartels. However, Hezbollah’s links to such groups were revealed by the US Treasury’s investigation into the Lebanese Canadian Bank in 2010, which showed Hizbullah to be deriving substantial sums from the Latin American cocaine trade.

Other sceptics have queried whether such often amateurish and incompetent operations – from the failed Azerbaijani plot to the disabled car bomb in Tbilisi and the ‘own goal’ explosion in Bangkok – could be the work of Iran and Hizbullah. Clearly, the transnational terrorist capacities of both have atrophied from lack of use. But the Burgas attack suggests that, as is so often the case with terrorist organisations, performance improves with practice.

Thus far, Hizbullah and the IRGC’s crack ‘Quds’ force appear to have acted largely independently of each other and to have focused their efforts on locations where each enjoys a relative advantage. Whether under continuing pressure they will be driven to combine forces and attempt more ambitious attacks remains to be seen.


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