With the Burgas Bombing, Hezbollah Returned to Its Roots

The Lebanese Shi'ite militant group, now blamed for a July attack on a busload of Israeli tourists in a resort city in Bulgaria, is once again striking far beyond its home country's borders.

The Lebanese Shi'ite militant group, now blamed for a July attack on a busload of Israeli tourists in a resort city in Bulgaria, is once again striking far beyond its home country's borders.

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The bus destroyed in the terrorist attack in Burgas, Bulgaria on July 19th, 2012. (Stoyan Nenov/Reuters)

Hezbollah, a growing body of evidence suggests, is back in the business of international operations after a long hiatus -- striking out not only at military or official targets of its sworn enemies, but also, this time, at civilians. Bulgarian officials said on Tuesday that they could connect Hezbollah to the July 2012 bombing at a Black Sea resort that killed six civilians (five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver) along with one attacker. The results of Bulgaria's investigation, if they bear out, add credence to a pattern that has slowly taken shape over the last seven years, ever since Hezbollah was first indicted for a political assassination in Lebanon and later accused of strikes on Israeli targets abroad. The Party of God, once eager to forswear tactics considered terrorist, appears to be tilting back into their embrace. The culmination of this transformation, or return to origins, could have serious consequences.

Observers of Hezbollah have kept track of the organization's enduring ability to strike beyond Lebanon's borders and its deep connections in Western diaspora communities. Still, Bulgaria's claim that two of the alleged Hezbollah operatives carried real Western passports, from Canada and Australia, provides hard evidence. US officials have always worried about Hezbollah operatives with Western passports, but have never made any credible claims about the number of cells with military training that are believed to reside outside Lebanon.

The deliberate investigation of the Bulgaria bombing could heighten alarm about Hezbollah. Last year Hezbollah was accused in plots against Israeli targets around the globe, some  foiled ahead of time (Bangkok, Baku), some botched in execution (India, Georgia), and some lethal, like the one in Bulgaria. Perhaps Hezbollah is frustrated by its own weakness; since 2008, it has sworn to retaliate against Israel for the assassination of Hezbollah's military mastermind, Imad Mughniyeh. Yet more than four years have passed, and Hezbollah has failed in any plots against high-profile Israeli targets. Hence, perhaps, the targeting of Israeli holidaymakers instead.

Now, evidence from these cases is emerging at a time when the Lebanese party-cum-militia is feeling more threatened - and perhaps more militarized - than at any point in more than a decade. Hezbollah fighters have been actively involved in the Syrian civil war, on the regime's side, another departure for an organization that for two decades has styled itself a national resistance movement, and has portrayed all its fights as defensive stands against Israel. In Syria today, Hezbollah can make no such claim for its fighters. Furthermore, if Syria decided to retaliate directly at Israel for its recent strike, Hezbollah would be the most efficient vehicle through which to do so.

Western intelligence and security officials have long worried about Hezbollah's presence among the Lebanese diaspora, which numbers somewhere between 10 and 14 million. Plenty of Lebanese abroad support Hezbollah politically. Some are known to engage in fundraising and other types of nonmilitary support. What's not clear is how many of these dual nationals have any time of military training, or any role as sleeper or sabotage cells. The Bulgarian revelations suggest that Hezbollah might have some real strategic assets sprinkled in the West.

Since the massive attacks on Jewish targets in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994 (which Hezbollah denied but to which it was tied with conclusive evidence in Argentine courts), Hezbollah for a long time avoided kidnappings and terrorist spectaculars. But there's growing evidence that that policy changed in 2005 with the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah has denied any blame for that murder, resorting to increasingly improbable evasions of responsibility. Still, it was a political assassination, and deplorable as it was it didn't mark a return to attacks on random civilians. Last year's plots, however, if they are conclusively laid at Hezbollah's doorstep, do amount to a substantive pivot.

Hezbollah has argued since the mid-1990s that it should be treated as a liberation movement, accorded the status of a quasi-state. It has claimed to behave within the norms of nations, concentrating after 1994 on military targets in its fight with Israel and making a plausible claim to proportionality vis-à-vis Israel's use of force against Lebanese civilians.

One benefit of this approach for Hezbollah has been Europe's refusal to list it as a terrorist organization. Hezbollah remains the dominant player in Lebanon's government and the single-most powerful political and militia organization in Lebanon. While American diplomats by law can't even talk to Hezbollah members, most Europeans have maintained relations.

Terror-listing is an inherently symbolic exercise; despite the financial sanctions it carries, the designation does little to change behavior and it reduces the political maneuver room of all involved. To what extent has the US listing of Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization altered its behavior? (For that matter, what difference does it make when foreign states brand the Pentagon "terrorist?") But if Hezbollah is going rogue, or returning to its rogue roots of the 1980s, it will hurt the group over the long run, as it loses the access it has won in the Middle East and in Europe, and squanders what credibility it earned beyond its immediate following. Hezbollah will remain a quasi-state, but a rogue one.

Today, Hezbollah faces tremendous pressure as its patrons in Syria are on the verge of a state collapse. The Sunni resistance movement that might take over the embattled country detests Hezbollah nearly as much as it does Bashar Al-Assad. So Hezbollah faces the prospect of regional isolation and a strategic dismemberment, with the loss of the hinterland long afforded by Syria

The best-case scenario is that the machinations of outside players in Syria, including Hezbollah's, don't alter the wider status quo: that what happens in Syria stays in Syria. Increasingly, however, that seems like a fragile supposition. Already four outside forces have their own guns more or less in the game: Turkey and Israel against the regime, Iran and Hezbollah for it. Plenty more players are sending money or weapons in: the United States, Qatar, Kuwait, Russia, along with other wealthy figures and factions around the region.

Would this imbroglio ignite a regional conflagration? Iran's threats, like Syria's, ring hollow, but aren't without cause for concern. With so many outsiders in the mix, and so many partisan groups already fighting inside Syria, all it takes is one miscalculation. If Hezbollah already has activated secret cells to foment international attacks, making what appears to be several attempts across the world to hit Israeli targets, that marks another destabilizing escalation. It's a volatile mix, and the more threatened Hezbollah and the Assad regime feel, the more likely they are to make wild moves - attacks guaranteed to provoke international retaliation, or actions that they themselves will come to see as mistakes. There's no guarantee that we're headed for a regional war, or a spate of international attacks spawned by Syria's conflicts - but there's more cause today than ever before to worry.