A Terror Fighter We Don’t Know, But Should

In Europe, life is finally getting tougher for Hezbollah. For decades the group has used the continent to stage and fund its terror attacks, and last year they started to face proper scrutiny in Europe’s capitals. In 2020 alone, Austria, The Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, Serbia and Slovenia all designated Hezbollah as a terror organization, banning the group from using their financial institutions and from setting foot in their respective jurisdictions.

These designations and actions are totally deserved. Hezbollah has left pools of blood across Europe, and across the globe, so few outside Tehran, Pyongyang and Beirut will kick up any stink about this effort to blacklist them.

In a year when Hezbollah’s guns and bombs were thankfully quiet in Europe, it might seem strange that so many countries suddenly banned Hezbollah. Why Now?

Good question. So, let’s dig a bit deeper. These designations ultimately stem from years of thoughtful and incremental work towards banning Hezbollah from Europe. And one man in particular has been doing this leg-work, pushing, persuading and making the case. That man is Tsvetan Tsvetanov.

A former Deputy Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Tsvetanov knows firsthand the terror Hezbollah can export. You will remember that in 2012 a man boarded a bus full of Israeli tourists near Burgas, Bulgaria and detonated a bomb killing the Bulgarian bus driver and five Israeli tourists. The blast injured 35 more.

Serving as Bulgaria’s Interior Minister at the time, Tsvetanov was tasked with investigating the attack. Working through Europol, Tsvetanov’s probe quickly revealed that Hezbollah, without any shadow of doubt, was behind the bombing. The culprit known, Tsvetanov then led a campaign urging all countries to recognise, without equivocation, that Hezbollah murdered those six civilians on European soil. The ultimate goal of this campaign was to convince the European Union to label Hezbollah as a foreign terror organization, which would subject the group to the same punishments it now faces in the countries that banned it last year.

Early on, Tsvetanov’s campaign gained traction. In the US the then-White House Homeland Security Advisor John Brennan supported Tsvetanov’s push, as did 111 members of Congress who in a bipartisan letter thanked Tsvetanov personally for his leadership on the matter. But the EU was, well, less enthusiastic.

Some EU member states, perhaps, feared retribution for acknowledging the truth. Others, maybe, feared retaliation from one of Hezbollah’s allies, and perennial EU thorn in the side, Russia. But in the end, despite Tsvetanov’s best efforts, Brussels only designated as a terrorist group Hezbollah’s military wing, leaving Hezbollah’s political leadership, which funds and organizes its militants, untainted.

Tsvetanov presented Brussels with a moral test, and the political leadership there, at the time, failed. While more than eight years have passed since the bombing, Tsvetanov’s fight against Hezbollah, in many ways, is just beginning and the fruits of his labor starting to ripen.

During his time in government, Tsvetanov learned the value of transatlantic partnership and the importance of Israel’s security in a world where so many nefarious forces instead focus on finding creative ways to threaten that country and its citizens. Now, Tsvetanov is tackling those challenges in the Bulgarian government through his newly formed political party, Republicans for Bulgaria, whose platform calls for tighter bonds with the EU, U.S. and Israel, and urges Sofia to resist sham partnerships with a belligerent Russia and China. Outside of Parliament, Tsvetanov Chairs the Euro-Atlantic Security Center (EASC) in Sofia, a non-governmental organization that works toward the same goals.

It is from these twin perches that Tsvetanov has successfully pushed for more countries to ban the group that brought terror to his country. And now with a change of Leadership in Washington, Tsvetanov is in even better situation to take on Hezbollah.

Remember that The Burgas attack occurring during the Obama administration. Tsvetanov has managed since then to forge many close relationships with officials who have returned to high-ranking positions in the U.S. government. Unlike some European politicians, Washington’s political leadership is not afflicted by the fear of Hezbollah, having designated them a terror group way back in 1997.

Like any government, the EU in 2021 will be forced to react to events beyond its control. But what Tsvetanov’s years of work have shown is that Hezbollah is a deadly problem that can be confronted pre-emptively.

Washington’s renewed transatlantic focus coupled with the growing anti-Hezbollah sentiment across central and eastern Europe must be built upon in Brussels while pre-emption is still an option.

With the golden opportunity presented by the Biden administration’s stated aim to re-engage with its European allies, now is exactly the right time for Tsvetanov’s seeds, planted back in 2012, to come into full bloom. Brussels, we are waiting.

About the Author
Alex Benjamin is the director of EIPA, a multi-disciplined pro-Israel advocacy Group based in Brussels, with offices in Paris and Berlin. He is also the Director of Public Affairs for EJA: European Jewish Association, a Brussels based NGO which represents and acts on behalf of Jewish communities across the EU and wider European continent, at the heart of the European Institutions and at bilateral level with Member States.
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