Targeting Israelis: Indications Point to Iran in Bulgarian Bombing

By  in Beirut

The attack on Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria is a nightmare for Israeli security officials. For months, terrorists have been trying to strike at Israeli targets abroad -- and have now finally succeeded. It is thought to be part of the country's shadowy war with Iran and Hezbollah.

An image taken from a surveillance camera purporting to show the suicide bomber who attacked a bus full of Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria on Wednesday. Zoom
AP/ Bulgarian Interior Ministry

An image taken from a surveillance camera purporting to show the suicide bomber who attacked a bus full of Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria on Wednesday.

The suicide bomber was wearing plaid Bermuda shorts, a bright blue T-shirt, baseball cap, sunglasses and long hair. It was the perfect disguise; the young man looked just like a normal tourist. For more than an hour on Wednesday afternoon, he lingered in the parking lot of the airport in Burgas, the Black Sea coastal town in Bulgaria, according to video taken by surveillance cameras. When 44 Israeli tourists climbed onto a bus at 5:30 p.m. on their way to a beach-front hotel, the imposter boarded as well.

Just seconds later, an explosion ripped through the bus as the attacker detonated an explosive he had likely hidden in his backpack. Six Israelis, the Bulgarian bus driver and the perpetrator died in the attack. Dozens of Israelis were injured, some of them seriously.

Photo Gallery

5  Photos
Photo Gallery: Terrorist Attack in Bulgaria
Initial indications, according to the reconstruction carried out by Israeli authorities flown in to investigate the attack, appear to point to the involvement of Iran and its allies, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah. Investigators believe that the attackers specifically targeted Israelis traveling abroad, following a pattern similar to several other terror attacks and attempted bombings in previous months. The date of the attack has also aroused suspicion. Wednesday was the 18th anniversary of the attack on a Jewish cultural center in the Argentinean capital of Buenos Aires in which 85 people were killed. Argentina believes that Iran and Hezbollah were behind that assault and has issued an international arrest warrant for Iran's former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

An additional clue to the Wednesday bombing is provided by the fact that Western documents were found on the attacker -- often an indicator of Iranian or Hezbollah involvement. Investigators found a forged Michigan drivers license on the corpse of the suicide bomber, Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said on Thursday. DNA tests are currently being undertaken in an attempt to identify the attacker.

Targeting Israelis Overseas

It would likely come as no surprise to Israeli security were it determined that he came from either Iran or Lebanon. Intelligence officials in both Israel and abroad believe that recent months have seen an increase in attempts to stage terror attacks targeting Israelis traveling overseas. Evidence indicates that most of those attempts were steered from Iran or from the southern suburbs of Beirut, where Hezbollah is based.

In 2012 alone, terrorists made several attempts to target Israelis.

  • In January, authorities in Azerbaijan arrested two locals who, together with an Iranian agent, were planning to assassinate the Israeli ambassador in Baku and the senior rabbi of the city's Jewish community.
  • In February, the wife of an employee of the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi was injured when a bomb attached to her car exploded. On the same day, a similar attack was prevented in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. The double attack came on the fourth anniversary of the death of Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in a February 2008 bomb attack in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Hezbollah has blamed Israel for being behind the attack.
  • Just two days later, a plot aimed at the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok was uncovered when several explosions went off just a few blocks away. The first blast, likely the result of carelessness, damaged the terror team's hideout. Iranian papers and money was later found in the house. Two of the three attackers, all of whom were Iranian citizens, were captured. One managed to escape.
  • On July 2, it was revealed that the Kenyan secret service arrested two Iranians who ultimately led them to a location where they had hidden explosives. The two men are suspected of having planned attacks on a vacation resort frequented by Israelis. They had enough explosives to destroy a mid-sized hotel, according to Kenyan officials.
  • On July 14, Cypriot police arrested a 24-year-old Lebanese citizen following a tip-off from the Israeli secret service agency Mossad. The man was carrying a Swedish passport that was likely forged. According to Cypriot media reports, officials believe that the man had been planning a rocket attack on an airplane belonging to the Israeli airline Arkia.

Israel, for its part, has not shied away from engaging in the proxy conflict. It is thought that the country is behind several deadly attacks in Tehran in recent years targeting nuclear scientists. Officially, Israel has made no comment, but behind the scenes some have boasted that the "long arm of Mossad has reached Tehran."

The Israeli reaction to the attack in Burgas was prompt. First, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blustered about the threat of retaliation against "Iran's terror." Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon was more cautious, saying the country would, among other things, file a diplomatic initiative at the United Nations for Hezbollah to be placed on the list of international terrorist organizations. Israel would seem eager to defuse concerns that it might use the attack in Burgas as an excuse to make a first strike on Iran's nuclear program.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak discouraged criticism of Israeli intelligence services over their inability to stop the attack. The fact that the experts did not predict the bombing was a "mishap," not "negligence," he said.

"The world is big and full of places where these people act," he added. "The success of our intelligence and of others has been great, but there are days that are painful, and yesterday was one such day."

David Böcking assisted in compiling this report

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