“I am not alone here. I know of several more Lebanese and Syrian-related Hezbollah members who have lived in Bulgaria for years.”
Ali, a Hezbollah sympathizer, living in Bulgaria and married to a Bulgarian tells me. At his request, his name has been changed. He fears the repercussions for his family still living in Lebanon. He is right to worry – Hezbollah has repeatedly proved adept that it can keep a careful eye on its members, observing their actions from its Lebanese fortress, more than even 2000 km away.
Iran and the Balkans? Why?
The Balkans are not synonymous with Iranian influence – unlike Turkey or Russia who have deep historical links in the region. Iran, however has cultivated its presence only over the last 30 years. The Balkans, for Iran, has proved to be important for at least two reasons.
Firstly, there is Bosnia, a country that Iran established a foothold in during the 1992-1995 war. It supplied arms and training to Muslim fighter when the West had applied a blockade. After the war, Iran never really left. It adapted, the sympathetic networks it had created gained influence in different sections of society. The local security and law enforcement agencies were and continue to be woefully under-prepared to deal with a sophisticated actor like Iran.
The Sarafovo bombing, in Bulgaria, was evidence of this.
According to intelligence reports and local sources, Hezbollah is the main proxy for Iranian influence and intelligence and in the Balkan region – predominantly in Bulgaria and Bosnia. Their operatives travel with passports from western countries, permitting greater latitude for avoiding suspicion from local authorities. For example, the men wanted for the Sarafovo bombing used Australian and Canadian documents.
Hezbollah’s status in Bulgaria
Five years ago, the situation was different and at that point, Hezbollah’s members were quiet in the Balkans, but the situation has changed – mainly because of the accusations against the organization.
The 18 July 2012 Sarafovo terrorist attack at Burgas that killed five Israeli tourists and one Bulgarian national, and wounded another 32 Israelis, was proof that the Balkans are not immune to this sort of terror.
While the main suspect of the attack is Hezbollah the case has stalled and there have been difficulties in bringing the accused to court. According to the Bulgarian government, three Hezbollah operatives blew up an Israeli tour bus. The bomber, a Lebanese-French national Muhammad Hassan El-Husseini, was also killed in the explosion. Two suspects – Lebanese-Australian Meliad Farah and Lebanese-Canadian Hassan El Hajj Hassan – then fled to Lebanon where authorities have ignored Bulgarian extradition requests.
Yet while the Sarafovo attack and the Sarajevo embassy showdown highlighted regional security concerns, the media failed to alter how the region is presented – mostly through outdated facts and stereotypes.
The prevailing media and political discourse that has shaped public opinion on terrorism in the Balkans has largely failed to discuss the issue, even hypothetically. This is because it tends to discount the possibility of terrorist attacks, arguing for example that Iran cannot have influence over Sunni populations, that Muslims in the Balkans are somehow ‘different’ than those in conflict regions, and that ethnic affiliation is more important than religious affiliations.
The Balkans has a long history of dangerous groups: from organized crime groups, extremist right-wingers and ultra-Nationalists, leftists and anarchists, and varieties of sometimes violent Islamic groups. Most experts are focused primarily on manifestations of neo-Nazism and Salafi groups across the Balkans. In contrast to with Balkan Sunni extremists, little research has been published on Hezbollah in the Balkans and academics could focus more on this.
Yossi Melman, a veteran Israeli journalist who covered intelligence and strategic affairs for Haaretz for 27 years, was quoted in 2013 report on Israeli concerns of Iranian presence in the Balkans, “Israeli agencies know that Iran’s MOIS [Ministry of Intelligence and Security] and the Quds Force [a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for foreign operations] have established sleeper cells of agents and they try to locate weak links in the European chain. One such a weak link is the Balkans.”
Four years after the publications of the report related to Hezbollah and Iranian influence in the Balkans, the issue still lacks any deep understanding or research.
While Israel intercepted rising Iranian influence and especially Hezbollah operatives in the Balkans, namely Bulgaria and Bosnia, little is known of how these networks function.
According to Israeli intelligence and diplomats, tourists and Jewish populations are regarded as potential targets because of rising tensions between Tel Aviv and Tehran.
Established sleeper cells?
For long time – since the end of the 90s and the beginning of the 2000s Iran searched for weak links in the EU chain and the Balkans seems to be the weak link they were looking for. Security problems, a lack of monitoring, and problems with intelligence sharing between Balkan nations—and between the Balkans and the EU—are just a few of the problems.
Sources and the available information drawing picture in which local authorities, for example Bulgarian, knew for already existing networks in three of the biggest Bulgarian cities. Political parties knew too – Nationalists even defend Iran and Hezbollah.
Some of these agents are working in Varna and Sofia. According to local sources – including intelligence and counter-terror sources – some of them crossed the border with Serbia as tourists and looking for infrastructures, administrative buildings and everything related to Jewish populations and Israeli properties.
Till today, there is no clear data related to Hezbollah activities in the Balkans and Bulgaria. Intelligence rumors that dozen of operatives travel between Sofia and Sarajevo via Belgrade, and also in Macedonia and Kosovo – despite the fact that Iran does not recognize Kosovo.
A Hezbollah member who I spoke to recently in Bulgaria revealed a few details to me. Hezbollah networks in Bulgaria and other Balkan countries are mostly made up of Lebanese citizens who arrive as students or businesspersons. Some students receive financial help from Hezbollah to complete their education, and then either return to Lebanon or stay in Bulgaria. If they stay, some of them can become operatives for the movement`s purposes.
Some of the students or businessmen arriving in the Balkans have been linked to Hezbollah in Lebanon or have been full members with military training. When they arrive, they can spend months or even years, living a normal civilian life, even starting families. For example, some of them are married to Bulgarian citizens. Their main task is to gather information not only about Israeli presence in any given country, but also information about the state itself and its relations.
There are two main places for meetings in Bulgaria – in the coastal city of Varna and the capital of Sofia. As Hezbollah is a partner of the Syrian government, there are even Syrians involved in the movement`s networks.
Excusing to not mention Hezbollah as terrorist organization
The US Congress in 2016 called on the EU to proscribe all of Hezbollah as a terrorist entity. A recent German intelligence report said 950 Hezbollah members are operating in the Federal Republic.
EU member states are divided on Hezbollah. The movement has been proscribed in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom but other members, notably France, have been reluctant to follow suit.
Hezbollah often uses the argument of the political situation in Lebanon to defend its actions both in Lebanon and Syria where its fighters support the Assad regime. The international community finds it difficult to identify the movement as a terrorist group because of the fact that Hezbollah is a political force in Lebanon. Its structures have infiltrated the administrative system and bureaucracy in Lebanon that it would be difficult at the moment to be eradicated.
At the same time, the movement has been used by Iran as a proxy. While Hezbollah fighters fought in Iraq and Syria, its agents traveled across Europe to look for opportunities to infiltrate, in every possible way, the states hostile to Iran. This can mean both the establishment of economic ties and the strengthening of the influence with companies and business, as well as the creation of cell networks. For the time being, these cells are scruffy and only collect information.
However, as Sarafovo has shown, there is always the possibility of an attack if the necessary measures are not taken by the local governments. For now, however, Iran has been seen by many countries as an ally in the fight against terrorism, and tacitly the networks of agents have been observed without a response.