The EU’s top counter-terrorism official has said that Hezbollah might not get onto the Union’s blacklist even if it did bomb Jewish tourists in Bulgaria last year.
Gilles de Kerchove told EUobserver that Bulgaria’s investigation into the incident is likely to be concluded next month.
US and Israeli officials have said the EU should list the Lebanese militant group if the Bulgarians find it guilty, in a move which would make it illegal for Hezbollah sympathisers in Europe to send it money.
But for De Kerchove, the situation is not so simple.
“First, we need to reach conclusions with strong evidence that it was the military wing of Hezbollah [which bombed Burgas]. That’s the prerequisite, even in legal terms, but then, as always in the listing process, you need to ask yourself: ‘Is this the right thing to do?’,” he said.
“For Hezbollah, you might ask, given the situation in Lebanon, which is a highly fragile, highly fragmented country, is listing it going to help you achieve what you want? … There is no automatic listing just because you have been behind a terrorist attack. It’s not only the legal requirement that you have to take into consideration, it’s also a political assessment of the context and the timing,” he added.
He noted there is “no consensus” among EU states on whether listing Hezbollah would be helpful or not.
He said the US has not listed Nigerian extremists Boko Haram to avoid giving them international recognition.
He recalled that one EU country in past years objected to listing a Latin American militant group, which was “obviously a terrorist organisation,” because it was in secret negotiations with it at the time to “bring it back into mainstream politics.”
The Bulgarian interior minister briefed his EU peers on the Burgas probe at an informal meeting in Dublin last week.
A London-based Arabic newspaper – Al Hayat – later cited a “European source” as saying he predicted the investigation will point to Hezbollah.
The Bulgarian interior ministry denies the story, however.
“Until the case is concluded, we cannot say exactly who was involved,” Bulgarian interior ministry spokeswoman Vania Valkova told this website.
An EU diplomat said: “It’s difficult to say what will happen until Bulgaria files its report. The way these things are phrased could be very important. There could be lots of ifs and maybes or it could contain very concrete elements.”
He added: “Hezbollah plays a very important political role in Lebanon.”
For his part, Vladimir Chukov, a teacher of Arabic studies at Sofia university, noted that Hezbollah politicians would probably pull out of the ruling coalition in Lebanon if the group is listed by the Union.
“That would mean the end of the Lebanese government. It would mean the destabilisation of Lebanon and the further destabilisation of the whole region … This is unfamiliar territory for the Bulgarian police. It’s not a normal criminal investigation. It concerns EU foreign policy and the wider situation in the Middle East,” he said.
He noted that police in Azerbaijan, India and Thailand recently blamed Hezbollah for attacks on Jewish targets.
One theory is that they came in retaliation against Israel’s alleged assassinations of scientists linked to the nuclear programme in Hezbollah’s paymaster, Iran.
But Hezbollah itself and the people detained in the probes deny that it was involved.
Alastair Crooke, a former EU advisor on Middle East policy who runs an NGO in Beirut, also cast doubt on Hezbollah’s involvement in Burgas.
“Why would they want to do that? What for?” he asked.
“Hezbollah uses its military power against the Israeli army. It has an effective force. It’s well trained and it has invested a lot in preparing for conflicts in this area and in this terrain. You can’t take fighters out of south Lebanon and drop them into Bulgaria and replicate what they do here,” he said.