There is a common perception that the US anti-terrorism
campaign deals exclusively with al-Qaida. In reality, the recent resurgence of
Iranian state-sponsored terrorism and global Hezbollah activities has become a
prominent issue on the US foreign policy agenda. Last year, authorities foiled a
Hezbollah plot targeting Israeli tourists in Thailand.
investigation led them to a warehouse filled with thousands of kilograms of
explosives and bomb-making materials, proving that the group was focused not on
isolated attacks, but on preparing for a terrorism campaign. Additional
activities have been reported in Azerbaijan and Kenya, among other
The group has also been implicated in a July 2012 bombing at
Bulgaria’s Burgas Airport that killed several Israelis and a Bulgarian. Last
week, after completing an extremely thorough investigation, the country’s
Interior Ministry attributed responsibility to Hezbollah. This finding took a
great deal of political courage – the Bulgarian government knew there were risks
associated with such a declaration, but it chose to place greater priority on
its duty to combat terrorism.
One driving force behind Hezbollah’s
increased activity – which has risen to a level unmatched since the 1990s – may
be a desire to show the potential consequences if the West continues to confront
Iran over its nuclear program. The group likely also hopes to avenge the deaths
of longtime operations chief Imad Mughniyeh and several Iranian nuclear
scientists. Hezbollah already believes itself to be in a conflict with the West,
and it now wants to demonstrate how much worse the situation could become if
tensions continue to build.
The United States has long called on Europe
to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Such a move would have
significant implications beyond its symbolic value: It would criminalize
fund-raising and logistical operations and help delegitimize the group as a
Even Hezbollah’s leaders have publicly acknowledged the
damage a designation would do to the organization. Hopefully the Bulgarian statement will be a turning point in the long-stalled
debates regarding Hezbollah’s presence in Europe. The fact of a terrorist attack
on European soil will make the matter difficult for EU policy-makers to
Europe’s opposition to a designation has been partly attributed
to fears of retribution (e.g., the UN Interim Force in Lebanon has been targeted
in the past). Even more important, European policy-makers have confirmed their
interest in maintaining influence in Lebanon, and they frequently point to the
country’s stability as a major concern. This is not a trivial fear given
Lebanon’s history, especially the enormous toll in human lives exacted during
the civil war.
Despite these legitimate concerns, however, European
reasoning on this issue may be faulty. Western pressure on Hezbollah in recent
years has not stoked instability in Lebanon – for example, witness the group’s
relatively muted reaction to the news that its operatives were being indicted
for the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Furthermore, Hezbollah
itself is a significant contributor to domestic turbulence, as seen in the
Hariri assassination, the toppling of the government through armed action, and
the apparent killing of Lebanon’s intelligence chief just last
Going forward, Europe needs to ask whether Hezbollah has any
interest in actively destabilizing Lebanon. Despite its violent actions at home,
the group seems keen to protect what is left of its image as a champion of
Lebanese interests and a national force that promotes a strong Lebanon. It is
therefore unlikely to take steps that gravely threaten that goal. Although
designating Hezbollah [a terror group] could conceivably spark a reprisal
against UNIFIL troops, the probability of a new civil war is very
Finally, the story of Hezbollah’s terrorist activities in Europe
does not end in Bulgaria. In Cyprus, for example, a trial is under way involving
a suspect apprehended in July 2012 who confessed to surveilling Israeli tourists
as potential targets. A thorough prosecution and conviction would do much to
fulfill the requirement of some European states for evidence against Hezbollah
that can withstand judicial scrutiny.
Such evidence would be difficult
for policy-makers to ignore.
Whatever the case, Europe will be
deliberating intensively on the designation issue in the near future. A number
of countries have stated that they would shift their policy if Bulgaria publicly
attributed the Burgas bombing to Hezbollah operatives – time will tell if this
is still the case.
Hezbollah is a regional problem and, most
likely, a growing problem globally.
The Bulgarian investigation revealed
that the group is also a European problem.
Bulgaria’s interior minister
accused two members of Hezbollah’s military wing of being involved in the
appalling attack in July that killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian bus driver
while injuring 30 other people. The United Kingdom believes the right response
is for the EU to designate Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist
organization. The UK has no doubts about Hezbollah’s involvement in terrorism –
it designated the group’s External Security Organization in 2001, then extended
the designation in 2008 to include Hezbollah’s entire military wing.
EU designation would not destabilize Lebanon, nor would it affect the legitimate
role that Hezbollah’s political wing plays in Lebanon’s politics. Rather, a
designation carried out via the EU’s terrorist asset freezing program would have
a number of positive effects: In addition to sending a clear message that the EU
will not tolerate acts of terror on European soil, it would reduce support for
Hezbollah’s activities, put pressure on the group to move away from violence as
a means of achieving its objectives, and limit its ability to raise and move
funds, making the group less agile in terms of operating in Europe.
designation would have symbolic effects as well, damaging Hezbollah’s profile
and reducing its legitimacy.
The UK makes a distinction between
Hezbollah’s military and political wings based on its experience in dealing with
terrorism, most notably in Northern Ireland. The UK’s view is that even in the
best of circumstances, terrorist problems can be resolved only by long and
persistent pressure (e.g., defensive security, policing, intelligence-led
operations, financial pressure, sanctions) together with political measures. It
is important to leave space for the political talks necessary to achieve a
sustainable solution; the UK hopes that Hezbollah will one day seek to achieve
its aims solely through politics. The UK recognizes that Hezbollah is an
influential political force in Lebanon and enjoys strong support from the
Lebanese Shi’ite community. The group is part of Lebanon’s government and could
one day be a force for stability in the country.
Finally, the UK has been
impressed by the Bulgarian government’s painstaking investigation into the
Burgas attack and believes that sufficient evidence has been revealed for the EU
to designate Hezbollah’s military wing. The UK also recognizes that the EU has a
different legislative basis for sanctions than the United States, and that EU
sanctions could be challenged in court.
February 2008 assassination of Hezbollah operations chief Imad Mughniyeh spurred
an uptick in the group’s terrorist operations against Israeli interests, Iran’s
decision to aggressively target Western interests beginning in early 2010 was
even more impactful. Tehran’s shadow war with the West led to a string of plots
and attacks against US, British, Saudi and Israeli interests worldwide,
conducted by operatives from Hezbollah and the Quds Force branch of Iran’s
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (read a recent Institute report on the reasons
behind this shadow war). A number of these plots unfolded on European soil, yet
EU officials remained hesitant to officially designate Hezbollah as a terrorist
organization. Last week, however, an extensive Bulgarian investigation concluded
that the group was responsible for the July 2012 Burgas bus bombing.
new finding marks an important first step toward an EU designation of Hezbollah,
and more evidence of the group’s activity in Europe is still emerging. Just a
week before the Burgas attack, authorities in Cyprus arrested a suspected
Hezbollah operative – this one a European citizen – on charges of conducting
surveillance for a similar operation against Israeli tourists boarding airport
That trial is due to conclude in the next couple of weeks and will
likely reveal a good deal more information on the group. The investigators have
already contended that the accused was a Hezbollah courier who delivered
packages to operatives around the world before he was sent to Cyprus to conduct
surveillance. At least some of those deliveries were reportedly to European
operatives, including in France and the Netherlands.
Regardless of that
case’s outcome, the reasons for Europe to designate Hezbollah are well
• Terrorism at home. Hezbollah has firmly reinstated itself in the
business of European terrorism in a manner not witnessed since the 1980s, when
it carried out attacks from Copenhagen to Paris. In addition to the Burgas and
Cyprus plots, Hezbollah has conducted surveillance and planned operations in
Greece and other European countries. The reemergence of such activity is cause
for immediate concern among European lawenforcement and intelligence
• Criminal activity. Hezbollah is also deeply involved in a
wide array of criminal activities on the continent. Its role in drug trafficking
and money laundering is on the rise, as documented in recent cases against the
Lebanese Canadian Bank, Lebanese drug kingpin Ayman Joumaa, and others.
According to Interpol, authorities have “dismantled cocainetrafficking rings
that used their proceeds to finance [Hezbollah] activities... while drugs
destined for European markets are increasingly being channeled through West
The group also uses Europe as a base for fund-raising
and weapons procurement, readily obtaining vast amounts of money through
charity-like methods while using front companies to secure arms for its
militants. In one case, German Lebanese dual national Dani Tarraf attempted to
procure M4 rifles, anti-aircraft/anti-tank missiles, and other weapons for
Hezbollah, with the intention of shipping them to Latakia, Syria, via his
company in Slovakia. He was very clear about why he wanted guided and
shoulder-fired missiles: to “take down an F-16.” According to the FBI, Tarraf’s
company, Power Express, essentially “operated as a subsidiary of Hezbollah’s
technical procurement wing.”
In addition, recent US cases have revealed
the extent to which Hezbollah is involved in counterfeiting European and other
currencies, including euros. For example, one Hezbollah operative explained to
an FBI source that the group operates high-quality printing presses 18 to 20
hours a day to produce counterfeit US dollars and Kuwaiti, Saudi and European
money. The operative also bragged that he belonged to what he called “terrorism
Hezbollah,” which he said was active “all over the world.”
operatives have told the FBI that the group ran a long-standing worldwide
robbery campaign to fund terrorist operations; in one heist, Hezbollah
supporters reportedly stole $2 million from a bank in Sweden.
Undermining regional security. The EU has immediate interests in Middle Eastern
stability, and few actors are as proactively involved in undermining regional
security as Hezbollah. In August 2012, the US Treasury Department once again
blacklisted the group for providing “training, advice, and extensive logistical
support” to the Syrian regime’s increasingly ruthless efforts against the
opposition. A month later, the department sanctioned Hezbollah chief Hassan
Nasrallah and two key leaders, Mustafa Badr al-Din and Talal Hamiyah, for the
same reason. As US officials told the UN Security Council in October, “the truth
is plain to see: Nasrallah’s fighters are now part of [Syrian President Bashar]
Assad’s killing machine.”
• Destabilizing Lebanon. Although several
European countries are concerned that designating Hezbollah could spur
instability in Lebanon, the fact is that the group itself has already done more
to destabilize the country than anyone else. In July 2006, Hezbollah drew Israel
and Lebanon into a war neither country wanted.
In 2008, it took over
parts of Beirut by force, leading to the deaths of several fellow countrymen.
Its activities in Syria have drawn that sectarian conflict across the border
into Lebanon. And Hezbollah members have been implicated in the assassinations
of Internal Security Forces investigations chief Wissam al-Hassan and former
prime minister Rafik Hariri, with the latter resulting in indictments by the
UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
The fact that Nasrallah is personally
directing Hezbollah’s activities in Syria also underscores the need to avoid
making false distinctions between Hezbollah’s political and military
Although it may seem pragmatic for the EU to designate the
group’s military and terrorist organs while sparing its political wing, such an
approach would severely limit Europe’s ability to prevent operatives from
traveling and fund-raising throughout the continent. Selective designation could
also have the unintended consequence of lending the group undeserved legitimacy.
Some European countries have even proposed designating only specific Hezbollah
operatives, but that approach would be even more ineffectual.
an EU designation is critical, not only to send Hezbollah a clear message that
it can no longer muddy the waters between politics and terrorism, but also
because it would empower EU member states to open terrorism-specific
investigations into the group’s activities – something many cannot or will not
do today despite the resumption of attacks in Europe. The Bulgarian announcement
was just the first shoe to fall; next comes the Cyprus verdict. The EU must show
Hezbollah that there are consequences for executing terrorist operations,
raising funds, procuring arms, and recruiting operatives on European soil.
Inaction or half-measures would only embolden the group to continue operating
there as if it were business as usual.
This rapporteur’s summary was prepared by