by Benjamin Weinthal
The arrest of an alleged Hezbollah operative planning an attack on Israelis in Cyprus shines a new spotlight on the Lebanese militia’s activities in Europe. Will fresh instances of Hezbollah’s terrorism push the EU to proscribe Hezbollah’s full organization as a terrorist entity?
Cypriot intelligence sources said the 26-year-old Canadian national, who was arrested on Wednesday, is a member of Hezbollah’s so-called military wing and that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps trained him, according to the Nicosia-based Phileleftheros daily.
The authorities seized 420 boxes of ammonium nitrate – a key ingredient for explosives – in the man’s home along with $10,000. Sources said the suspect also has Lebanese citizenship, the paper wrote.
The arrest conjures up striking parallels to Hezbollah terrorist plans and attacks against Israelis on European soil since 2012. According to Israeli and US intelligence sources, a joint Hezbollah- Iran mission blew up an Israeli tour bus in Bulgaria in 2012, resulting in the deaths of five Israelis and their Bulgarian driver. The Canadian-Lebanese Hassan El-Hajj Hassan and Australian-Lebanese Malih Farah were implicated in the attack by Bulgaria’s government.
The US listed the men as “specially designated terrorists” who are wanted by Interpol. Both men are believed to be in Lebanon.
Hezbollah has relied on Western terrorists because their passports allow for greater latitude to travel and raise fewer red flags. Writing in the Daily Telegraph on Thursday, the Labor MP Michael Danby said, “Hezbollah remains one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations. It has activists in Sydney. Maybe it isn’t as obviously bloodcurdling as the barbarians in Daesh [Islamic State], but its operatives have conducted and attempted to conduct numerous terrorist attacks across the world.” He added, “Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese franchise, is classified as a terrorist organization by Australia.”
Australia, like the EU, has outlawed Hezbollah’s “military wing.” In sharp contrast to the half-designation, the US, Canada, Israel and the Netherlands have proscribed Hezbollah’s entire organization as a terrorist group.
Critics of the EU policy charge that Hezbollah is a monolithic organization and cannot be divided into military and political wings. European diplomats and politicians are reluctant to evict Hezbollah’s structure in their countries because they don’t want to pull the plug on engagement with a party in Lebanon’s government.
Should Europe sanction fully Hezbollah, there are concerns about a terrorist backlash in EU capitals. Put simply, an enormous level of fear plays a role in their calculus to maintain diplomatic relations with the Shi’ite organization.
The current arrest in Larnaca can be viewed as an Act 2 of the case of the Swedish-Lebanese citizen Hossam Taleb Yaacoub who was convicted in Cyprus in 2013 for participating in a criminal organization to murder Israelis on the island. It was the first European court conviction of a self-admitted Hezbollah member. The conviction contributed to the EU’s decision in July 2013 to ban Hezbollah’s military wing.
Yaacoub told Cypriot investigators he was adhering to Hezbollah’s organizational objective. “I was just collecting information about the Jews,” he said.
Yaacoub added the he was “staking out locations Israelis would frequent and acting as a courier for [Hezbollah] inside the European Union.”
Europe has long been a zone of free movement for Hezbollah fund-raising and meetings. Germany’s most recent domestic intelligence report lists 950 active members in the country. The actual number of Hezbollah members in the Federal Republic is believed to be significantly greater.
The criminal case against the 26-year-old Canadian is still in a preliminary phase and it is likely the EU will not consider a full ban of Hezbollah anytime soon. Cypriot Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou said, “We are investigating every possibility and any links [to extremists], if they exist, will be investigated and evaluated.” The valuable experience Cypriot authorities gained in connection with Hezbollah’s inner workings in their conviction of Yaacoub should aid their current inquiry.
As a result of the EU designation of Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist entity, the suspect could be charged with membership in a terrorist organization.
Since the 2013 Hezbollah designation, the Lebanese organization has intensified its role as the spearhead of Bashar Assad’s forces against Syrian rebel groups. France was largely swayed to sanction Hezbollah in 2013 because of the group’s role in boosting the Syrian’s regime chances of survival.
Taken together, the new terrorism case in Cyprus and Hezbollah’s bloodsoaked role in Syria’s civil war mean there might, just might, be a change in Europe’s posture toward Hezbollah.
It is still an open question whether the overly cautious – and easily frightened – EU will outlaw the Lebanese organization.
Benjamin Weinthal reports on European affairs for The Jerusalem Post, and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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