The rift over counterterrorism strategy between the United States and its trans-Atlantic partners will likely be on display next week in Brussels, where European foreign ministers are slated to discuss the Bulgarian government report issued earlier this month accusing Hezbollah operatives of blowing up an Israeli tour bus last July at Burgas, a Black Sea resort town, killing five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian driver.
Many observers were surprised last week in Sofia when Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov declared that the two suspected perpetrators “were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah,” adding that investigators have found information “showing the financing and connection between Hezbollah and the two suspects.” Despite German and French lobbying for a deliberately nebulous statement about something along the lines of a Lebanese connection being behind the Burgas killings, the Bulgarians named names.
With the results of the Bulgarian inquiry front and center in the minds of European leaders, after an era of indifference in Europe to the Hezbollah threat, the debate over evicting Hezbollah’s members and organizational structure from continental Europe has taken on greater urgency.
John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, launched the opening salvo in an effort to break the silence. Speaking last October at a policy event in Dublin, Ireland, Brennan (who currently serves as Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor) publicly chastised the Europeans for failing to include Hezbollah on their list of terrorist organizations. European opposition to a listing “makes it harder to defend our countries and protect our citizens, ” Brennan stated. But his remarks went largely unnoticed by European media outlets.
Washington has no shortage of reasons to want Hezbollah’s military capability weakened. In January 2007, Hezbollah operative Ali Mussa Daqduq played a crucial role in the murders of five U.S. soldiers in Iraq. To the acute frustration of the Obama administration, Iraq’s government set Daqduq free. He’s reportedly back in Lebanon. But that’s only the latest assault on American troops. Hezbollah has a history dating back to October 1983, a year after its founding, when it carried out a double suicide attack against U.S. and French military barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American servicemen and 58 French paratroopers.
Washington designated Hezbollah a terrorist entity in the 1990s. Since then, several Hezbollah financial nodes have been designated, too. And that effort will not likely cease any time soon. As Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen notes, “Before al-Qaeda’s attack on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, Hezbollah was responsible for killing more Americans in terrorist attacks than any other terrorist group.”
Washington is arguably more worried about Hezbollah these days than al-Qaeda, which officials have declared is in decline. U.S. National Counterterrorism Director Matthew Olsen said that, “when we are briefing the White House, Hezbollah, coupled with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds force, are the “terror threats at the top of the list.”
Last week (his first on the job), Secretary of State John Kerry urgently called upon “other governments around the world—and particularly our partners in Europe—to take immediate action to crack down” on Hezbollah, adding, "We need to send an unequivocal message to this terrorist group that it can no longer engage in despicable actions with impunity .”
The unanswered question is why the EU is moving at such a gingerly pace in responding to the Hezbollah threat—particularly given the fact that Bulgarian authorities claim the group murdered an EU citizen. Dr. Guido Steinberg, a Middle East expert with the Berlin-based Foundation for Science and Politics, told the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper in February that, based on the EU preconditions for designating an organization a terrorist entity, “Hezbollah qualifies on all accounts.”
Other European governments agree. The United Kingdom declared Hezbollah’s military wing a terrorist entity in 2008 because its members targeted British soldiers in Iraq for death.
Across the English Channel, the Netherlands is the only EU country to consider Hezbollah’s entire apparatus—ranging from charity work to political and military functions—a terrorist organization.
Matthew Levitt,an analyst at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argues that the inner workings of Hezbollah’s organizational structure do not allow for a separation into military and political wings. Using statements from Hezbollah’s top leadership, Levitt demonstrates that the organization has repeatedly affirmed its monolithic nature. As Hezbollah’s second most senior official, Naim Qassem, put it last year, "We don't have a military wing and a political one; we don't have Hezbollah on one hand and the resistance party on the other.”
The EU’s reluctance to outlaw Hezbollah revolves around three core political and security issues. First, Germany, Cyprus, France, Sweden, Austria, Belgium and other EU states are wary of taking any action that might destabilize Lebanon’s fragile coalition government, in which Hezbollah largely plays the kingmaker role.
Second, EU nations have troops on the ground in Southern Lebanon as part of the UNIFIL mission to monitor a cessation of hostilities between Israel and Lebanon and help demilitarize Hezbollah. There are serious question marks over the efficacy of the EU presence in southern Lebanon. As my colleague Jonathan Schanzer notes, “ Conservative estimates suggest that Hezbollah maintains an arsenal of some 70,000 rockets .”
Third, Europe is worried about the possibility of new Hezbollah strikes in Europe if it stands up to the militant group and its Iranian backers. According to the most recent German domestic intelligence agency report, the number of Hezbollah members in the Federal Republic stands at almost 1000.
The current EU discourse—including the Bulgarian foreign minister Nickolay Mladenov’s suggestion to entertain a ban of Hezbollah’s military wing—is tending toward partial terror designation. The EU calculus could, however, change if Hezbollah’s role in aiding Syrian war crimes against opposition forces becomes too much to stomach. The UN calculates that the number of deaths in Syria increased from 60,000 last month to a likely figure of 70,000 today.
Benjamin Weinthal is a European affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He just returned from Sofia, Bulgaria. Follow Benjamin on Twitter: @BenWeinthal.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/yeowatzup. CC BY 2.0.