Europe’s Hezbollah problem

On Feb. 8, Daniel Benjamin, Karen Betts and Matthew Levitt addressed a policy forum at The Washington Institute. Benjamin is the US State Department’s former ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counter-terrorism. Betts is a political counselor and representative for the Joint Intelligence Committee at the UK Embassy in Washington. The following is a rapporteur’s summary of their remarks

Hezbollah Beirut 370 (photo credit: Archive)
Hezbollah Beirut 370
(photo credit: Archive)
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.
Further 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 places.
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 political actor.
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 ignore.
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 year.
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 low.
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.
An 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.
A 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.
Although the 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.
The 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 buses.
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 established: 
• 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 agencies.
• 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 African countries.”
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.”
Other 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 “wings.”
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.
In short, 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 Guive Rosen.