Matthew Levitt on Hezbollah’s threat and EU response following the Burgas investigation

This is an edited transcript of an interview with Matthew Levitt conducted by Toby Greene on 6/2/2013. The full interview is available on BICOM’s podcasts page

Matthew Levitt is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he directs the Institute’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. Previously, Levitt served in the senior executive service as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and before that as an FBI counterterrorism analyst. His paper ‘Hizballah and the Qods Force in Iran’s Shadow War with the West’ was published by the Washington Institute on 30 January 2013 and his next book, ‘Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God’ will be published by Georgetown University Press later this year.

The inquiry in Bulgaria published on 5 February 2013 has pointed the finger clearly at Hezbollah as the organisation responsible for the bombing In Burgas in July 2012, which killed five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian bus driver. But according to your recently published paper this is not an isolated incident. How do you see this attack falling into a wider Hezbollah-Iran strategy and what are they trying to achieve?

The Bulgarians pointing the finger at Hezbollah does not come as a surprise. There were leaks to the press about signals intelligence showing phone calls between individuals in Bulgaria and known Hezbollah operatives in Lebanon, which stopped after the bombing. This is also not the only Hezbollah plot to be uncovered in Bulgaria and elsewhere in Europe. Six months before the Burgas bombing there was a plot uncovered to target Israeli tourists on a skiing vacation in Bulgaria. A week before the Burgas attack a Swedish-Lebanese dual citizen was arrested in Cyprus where he had been observing flights landing from Israel and Israeli tourists getting on busses.

We now know that Hezbollah has two operations going on in tandem. The first is seeking revenge for the 2008 assassination of their military commander Imad Mughniya, which Hezbollah blames on Israel. In relation to this we have seen attempts by Hezbollah to target Israeli officials or former officials around the world, including in Azerbaijan, Egypt, Turkey and in parts of Africa.

In addition Hezbollah has been tasked by Iran with targeting Israeli tourists and soft targets worldwide, in an attempt to deter Israel and the West from carrying our actions against its nuclear programme, such as sabotage using computer viruses or targeting nuclear scientists. Iran also wants to signal that if someone targets Iran’s nuclear programme militarily, that Iran can strike back not only with rockets but with asymmetric warfare worldwide. This has been going on since January 2010, with numerous plots uncovered around the world.

From the details that have emerged from the Bulgarian inquiry, do we learn anything new about Hezbollah’s methodology or intentions?

For some time Hezbollah has been recruiting people who are fair skinned or look Western, or who have dual citizenship. In the 1990s up to around 2001 Hezbollah was infiltrating operatives into Israel through third countries, primarily in Europe, using dual citizens, including a British citizen. Now we see Hezbollah going back to this way of operating, in the case of the Burgas bombing by recruiting people with Canadian and Australian citizenship and sending them abroad on those passports after reportedly receiving training in Lebanon. We see the same in the case of the Swedish-Lebanese national caught in Cyprus among others.

The innovation here is that the bomber in Burgas was not a suicide bomber as first suspected. Europol analysis determined that the bomb was remotely detonated. It is not clear whether the plotters feared the bomber would lose his nerve, or if the bomber did not know he was to be a suicide bomber, or whether he even knew that he was carrying a bomb.

Hezbollah has been designated as a terrorist organisation in the US since the 1990s. The UK has designated its military wing since 2001, but the EU still has not listed Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation in any form. Why do you think there is such a gap between the US and Europe on how to deal with Hezbollah?

The gap is not just between the EU and US. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and some European countries, including the UK have designated some or all of Hezbollah. In the case of the UK, initially they designated the terrorist wing, the External Services Organisation. However, after Hezbollah was involved in targeting British soldiers in Iraq the designation was expanded to cover all of Hezbollah’s military wing. The Netherlands is the only EU country which has designated the entire organisation, as the US has. There is bound to be renewed discussion in the EU following the findings of the Burgas investigation and the trial of the Swedish individual in Cyprus, which is due to end soon.

Hezbollah is now carrying is out attacks within the European Union. Some activities are apparently being carried out by European citizens. Hezbollah is recruiting operatives in Europe, usually students from the Middle East. The organisation is raising money overtly, hand over fist, because there are no barriers to that in most EU countries. It is also engaged in logistical activities in Europe; allegedly the individual on trial in Cyprus was previously operating as a Hezbollah courier delivering materials to operatives in a variety of places including two European countries. This is in addition to Hezbollah being involved in a tremendous amount of criminal activity including drugs trafficking into Europe, its role in supporting the Assad regime in Syria, and its destabilising role in Lebanon. All these factors taken together should make Europe reconsider its position.

There are still some EU states arguing that we need to keep open communications with Hezbollah and that Hezbollah is important to the stability of Lebanon. Is there any merit in those arguments?

Those arguments have become stale. No-one is doing more to destabilise Lebanon than Hezbollah. In 2006 Hezbollah dragged both Israel and Lebanon into a war neither wanted. In 2008 Hezbollah took over downtown Beirut by force, leading to the deaths of several Lebanese. Now we have Hezbollah dragging the civil war in Syria into Lebanon.

France in particular says they worry about what might happen to European soldiers and civilians in UNIFIL in South Lebanon if the EU designates Hezbollah, but the US State Department has documented at least two instances where Hezbollah has already targeted French civilians and soldiers from UNIFIL.

The other concern France and others express is that Hezbollah might start carrying out attacks against them again. They apparently pressed Bulgaria to downplay the findings of their report, warning that they could be bringing terror upon themselves. However it is clear that Hezbollah have already been carrying out activities in Bulgaria for quite some time.

France has a specific reason for the attitude it takes. Hezbollah carried out attacks in France in the 1980s primarily because France was supplying weapons to Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. When France captured Hezbollah operatives, Hezbollah carried out more attacks to free their comrades. The lesson France learned was not to ‘stick its finger in Hezbollah’s eye’ and maybe they won’t do the same to you. That is an unprincipled stance in the extreme.

The UK is among those countries which favours designation of Hezbollah, but specifying its military wing. Do you think distinction makes sense? And from an operational perspective of trying to curtail Hezbollah’s terrorist and criminal activities on European soil, does it make a difference if the EU proscribe the military wing or the whole organisation?

It is a ridiculous distinction. You can refer to Hezbollah’s deputy leader Sheik Naim Kassem, who has said many times that there are no distinct wings and anyone who says otherwise does not understand Hezbollah. I have shared those statements with UK officials when they have decided to let Hezbollah officials into the country.

Designating parts of Hezbollah is better than nothing, but it is not nearly as affective as designating the entire organisation. Most of the fundraising is done under the name of ‘Hezbollah’, not under the name of the Islamic Jihad organisation, the External Services Organisation, or the Islamic Resistance. However, it would at least enable European countries that do not currently carry out counter-terrorist investigations against Hezbollah to do so. Currently there are several EU countries which do not carry out any investigations against Hezbollah whatsoever, meaning the organisation can operate freely.

In the last week the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel heated up on another front, with the Israeli air force apparently bombing, on 30 January, a convoy of weapons en route from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Do you think this is a one off, or that we are going to see more incidents like this? And how do you assess the risk of this escalating into a shooting match between Israel and either Hezbollah or Syria?

As a result of events in Syria, Hezbollah are going to try and move as many weapons as they can from Syria into Lebanon. For Israel, the movement of shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS) is crossing a red-line, which is why they targeted that convoy. They are also looking closely at the potential for Hezbollah to get their hands on Syria’s very large collection of chemical weapons.

The conflict in Syria will have other regional implications. There are concerns in Israel about the rise of Sunni jihadi militants. Some villages on the Syrian side of the Golan, close to the Israel-Syria border, are no longer in the hands of the government and are in the hands of rebels closely allied with al Qaeda. Israel is no less concerned about the rise of Hezbollah. Hezbollah has gone ‘all in’ to back Assad along with Iran. They want Assad to last as long as possible, they want to protect the Alawites, they want to protect their smuggling routes, and they want to see that whatever emerges in Syria is too weak to challenge them. A Sunni regime of any kind will not look as favourably on Hezbollah as the Assad regime, not only because of the history but because of Hezbollah’s active support for Assad in the current conflict. But a future Sunni regime in Syria may not be strong enough to confront Hezbollah and will not be looking for enemies, so Hezbollah may not necessarily be too severely weakened after the fall of the Assad regime.

If Israel carries out more such attacks against weapons convoys might Hezbollah retaliate, or are they still sufficiently deterred by the conflict in July-August 2006, that they will want to keep the border quiet for now?

As much as Hezbollah claimed ‘divine victory’ after the conflict in 2006, they suffered traumatic attacks from Israel. Israel has made it quite clear that once Hezbollah took over the Lebanese government (in 2011) that they would not distinguish between Hezbollah the party and Hezbollah the government. So whilst Hezbollah has engaged in international terrorism at the behest of Iran, for which it can claim deniability, and has attempted to carry out terror attacks within Israel itself, it is not interested in a military style confrontation over the Lebanese-Israeli border right now. I don’t think Hezbollah wants to fight on the Syrian and Israeli fronts at the same time.

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