For years, the European Union avoided talking about designating Hezbollah as a terrorist group, in part because Hezbollah was not blowing up things on the continent.
Two cases, one in Bulgaria and one in Cyprus, have changed that, and the EU is finally being forced to reconsider giving Hezbollah a free pass for terrorism.
During the 1980s, Hezbollah carried out bombings and shootings in Europe, and in the 1990s it used the continent as a springboard from which to launch operatives into Israel to carry out attacks there. Over the past few years, Hezbollah has raised large sums of money in Europe for its operations. But now the Bulgarian government has identified three individuals who were behind the Bulgaria bus bombing last July as being members of Hezbollah. Meanwhile in Cyprus, Hossam Yaakoub was recently convicted for carrying out surveillance for an almost identical plot there. The Lebanese-born Swedish citizen was arrested just two weeks before the Bulgaria bombing, at a time when Cyprus held the rotating presidency of the EU. In a sworn deposition, Yaakoub told Cypriot police: “It was just collecting information about the Jews, and this is what my organization is doing everywhere in the world.”
Why would Hezbollah risk its lucrative operation in Europe to be involved in such high-profile terrorist schemes? The answer is to be found not in the Lebanese Shiite heartland of South Lebanon or the Beqa Valley, but in Iran.
The U.S. government has described Hezbollah as a strategic partner of Iran. Hezbollah leaders believe in “velayat-e faqih” (“the rule of the jurisprudent”). For them, the edicts of the Supreme Leader of Iran carry the weight of directives. This relationship helps explain why Hezbollah will even do things that are not in the interest of Lebanon. For example, in July 2006, Hezbollah dragged both Lebanon and Israel into a war neither country wanted. Two years later, Hezbollah took over downtown Beirut by force of arms, taking weapons that were supposedly only for “resistance against Israel” and turning them against fellow Lebanese citizens, leading to the deaths of several Lebanese. The government of New Zealand cited this as an act of terrorism when it designated Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist group.
Hezbollah has also carried out attacks against Israelis worldwide. It has provided support to Shia militants in Iraq. It is helping Iran ferry weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen. Not only are Hezbollah soldiers now fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but they are dragging this sectarian conflict across the border into Lebanon. Perhaps the most audacious, and risky, attack took place last fall when Hezbollah flew a drone over southern Israel. Hezbollah had to expect that the Israeli Air Force would very likely retaliate — as the Israelis said they would — and yet they were willing to put Lebanese lives in jeopardy to provide Iran with intelligence. Whose interest are they serving?
Despite the group’s terrorist activities abroad, Europeans often assert a wall of separation between Hezbollah’s military work on the one hand and its role as Lebanon’s dominant political party and a large social welfare agency. Even Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General Naim Qassem himself has said explicitly that there is no such thing as a distinct wing — a political wing, a social welfare wing or a military wing — within Hezbollah. They are all overseen by the Hezbollah Shura Council, the Consultative Council, led by Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general, and they are all engaged in the furtherance of its mission of “resistance.” This European wall may be cracking as Ireland’s Minister of Justice Alan Shatter recently said, “I think Hezbollah is a single organization, it doesn’t reflect ... the structure of the IRA where the IRA, or Provisional IRA, was a military wing and Sinn Féin was a political wing.”
Europe cannot ignore Hezbollah’s criminal or terrorist activity simply because it also engages in political or social welfare activity. A murderer would not get clemency just because he also engaged in politics or charity. That’s just an “Alice in Wonderland” way of seeing the world that coddles terrorists.
Europe can’t afford to keep staring through the looking glass. With evidence of Hezbollah’s terrorist activity laid bare before them, it’s time for the European Union to follow the United States and designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Matthew Levitt directs The Washington Institute’s Stein program on counterterrorism and is the author of the forthcoming book “Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God” (Georgetown University Press, 2013).
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