BERLIN – A US-based think tank report has uncovered surveillance by Iranian militia Qods Force of the only synagogue in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. This suggests possible preparations for terrorist activity, similar to the case of the Hezbollah member convicted in Cyprus late last month for plotting to kill Israeli tourists on the island.
In the earlier case Hossam Taleb Yaacoub – a self-confessed member of Hezbollah – monitored flights from and to Israel and hotel and kosher restaurant establishments where Israelis were present.
According to a 2013 Washington Institute for Near East Policy report titled Hizballah and the Qods Force in Iran’s Shadow War with the West, “within days after the explosion in Burgas — while the investigation into the bombing and the search for accomplices was at its height — Bulgarian authorities reportedly caught a Qods Force operative scoping out a synagogue in the country’s capital.”
Israeli intelligence officials disclosed the Qods Force surveillance of the Sofia synagogue to the report’s author, Dr. Matthew Levitt, a leading authority on Hezbollah and director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute.
Tsvetan Tsvetanov, then-Bulgarian interior minister, announced in February that Hezbollah operatives had been responsible for the Burgas bus attack resulting in the murders of five Israelis and a Bulgarian national. Tsvetanov said the two suspected perpetrators “were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah” and added that investigators had found information “showing the financing and connection between Hezbollah and the two suspects.”
After the Burgas terror attack in July, US and Israeli officials attributed the bus bombing to a joint Hezbollah-Iranian operation.
Bulgarian sources who wished to remain anonymous told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that Bulgaria’s authorities, including top members of the security services, were made aware of ongoing Hezbollah-Iranian threats against Jews and Israelis in Bulgaria, prior to the Burgas attack. According to the sources, multiple Bulgarians “passed information a number of times” to security forces about planned Hezbollah attacks.
The Bulgarian intelligence was put on notice by Israel since 2012.
Danny Shenar, head of security at the Tourism Ministry, warned European authorities in general and Bulgaria in particular in early January 2012 that Hezbollah planned attacks on Israelis. He urged the Europeans to enhance their security measures.
However, Bulgarian sources told the Post that counterterrorism officials in Sofia were disturbingly lax in considering possible terror plots on Bulgarian soil ahead of the Burgas bus bombing.
The Post reported in 2011 that Hezbollah sought to attack Israelis in Europe. A January 2012 picture on the online news site Ynet showed a photograph of the enormous Sephardi synagogue in Sofia with a caption reading “Possible target? The Great Synagogue in Sofia.”
The new materiel disclosed by the Post adds additional hard evidence to a possible joint Hezbollah-Iranian operation to attack the synagogue. It is unclear if the Iranians were acting independently of Hezbollah, their main proxy, as a lone wolf operation in the small Eastern European country, or cooperating with Hezbollah.
According to the Washington Institute report, “Around the same time that authorities foiled a January 2012 plot targeting Israeli vacationers in Bulgaria – just weeks ahead of the anniversary of Mughniyah’s assassination— another Hezbollah plot was disrupted in Greece.”
Imad Mughniyah, on the European Union’s terror list, was assassinated in 2008 in Damascus. Mugniyah, a senior Hezbollah member, was indicted in Argentina for his alleged role in the 1992 Israeli embassy attack in Buenos Aires. Hezbollah attributed the targeted killing of Mughniyah to Israel and declared retaliation.
Asked about the surveillance and arrest of an Iranian Qods force operative in Sofia, Dimitar Yaprakov, a Bulgarian foreign ministry spokesman, answered the Post by email on Monday that “you may address [your questions] to the Ministry of Interior of Bulgaria.”
In response to a Post query, a press spokesperson from the Interior Ministry wrote “Such kind of information does not fall within the scope of the competence of MoI, it falls within the competences of SANS, the State Agency for National Security.”
A spokeswoman for SANS told the Post by phone that the security agency would work on a reply.
Asked about whether Bulgaria would recommend that the EU include Hezbollah on its terror list because a Bulgarian national—the bus driver Mustafa Kyosev – was allegedly murdered by Hezbollah, the foreign ministry spokesman Yaprakov wrote, “Bulgaria will provide our partners and allies with all the evidence uncovered in the investigation, but will not initiate the procedure to include certain groups or individuals in the banned list of the European Union.”
Dr. Wahied Wahdat-Hagh, an expert on Iran’s regime and its terrorism apparatus, told the Post “the European Union must, in consideration of the terrorist activities of Hezbollah over the last 30 years, finally draw a lesson and ban this terror organization.”
Wahdat-Hagh, a senior fellow with the Brussels-based European Foundation for Democracy, said postponing the problem regarding a prohibition of Hezbollah would merely lead to a greater problem on European soil.