The Bulgarian Bomb: Hezbollah attacks on the soil of an old Islamic ally

In July 2012, five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver were killed in a suicide bomb attack at the Black Sea resort of Burgas. It now appears more than likely that the Lebanese militants Hezbollah were behind the attack, their first on European soil since the mid-1980s.

The suicide bombing in Burgas was the latest in a series of attacks on Israelis abroad
The suicide bombing in Burgas was the latest in a series of attacks on Israelis abroad

Bulgaria rarely makes the international security news and this attack was a surprise in many ways, for Bulgaria once courted the support of some of the Middle East’s most mistrusted states and organisations. British Embassy papers from Sofia in 1980 illuminate the efforts of the communist People’s Republic of Bulgaria in trying to cosy up to Islamic states.

Under the heading ‘Bulgaria’s Desert Offensive’, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office papers hint at a gnawing anxiety among British diplomats as Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister undertook visits to Iraq, Syria and Libya, sealing several economic contracts in the process. At a time when West was still fighting East for global influence, the diplomacy of Bulgaria, independent of its Soviet overlords, was a worrying signal for the British. The fact that Bulgarian missions were being sent to some of the world’s preeminent pariah states was no doubt particularly alarming.

The People's Republic of Bulgaria was one of the USSR's most important allies
The People’s Republic of Bulgaria was one of the USSR’s most important allies

One document refers to the Bulgarian attempts to “exploit, commercially as well as politically, the Western embargo on trade with Iran”. Shortly after the Shah’s overthrow, the West had hoped to marginalise the Islamic hardliners in Tehran yet the divide in European politics, typified by Bulgaria’s actions, made unified action almost impossible.

There is also reference to the possibility of Bulgaria establishing official relations with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), at the time a highly-suspect paramilitary group responsible for a series of terrorist atrocities, including the 1972 Munich Massacre at the Olympic Games.

General Secretary Todor Zhivkov‘s April 1980 visit to President Hafez Al-Assad in Syria is also detailed. The two leaders even made a pilgrimage to Quneitra, the town “liberated” from Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

The long-serving Zhivkov sought a more prominent international stature for Bulgaria
The long-serving Zhivkov sought a more prominent international stature for Bulgaria

Iran, Palestine, Syria; all traditionally supported by Hezbollah, those responsible for the attack on Bulgarian soil. A disregard for history, perhaps? Of course, Bulgaria’s communist era is long-since over and the country is now in the EU. To think it retains such close links with the pariah’s of the Middle East is fantasy. Yet it is testament to the often rapidly-changing course of history. Not everything is a slow process only discernible to historians of the distant future.

Perhaps the most interesting inclusion in the British Embassy reports about Bulgaria’s ‘Desert Offensive’ is a piece from January 1980. The author of the report describes with dismay the publication in the Communist Party’s official newspaper, Rabotnichesko Delo, of a declaration by Libya and the PLO decrying Egyptian president Anwar El Sadat’s signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. The declaration appealed to ordinary Egyptians to overthrow “the treacherous regime” of Sadat, who had supposedly betrayed his Arab brothers. The author of the report states: “this is an exceptional step by the Bulgarians and probably reflects their desire…to keep on good terms with the radical Arabs, but it is scraping the barrel!”

So, Israeli hostility and pro-Arab sentiment have been prominent in Bulgaria in the not too distant past. Were the system of government still the same, questions of domestic collusion in the Hezbollah bomb attack in July 2012 would undoubtedly be raised. As it is, the suicide bombing is a sign of how little historical relations mean when broken by regime change. As is the fact that Bulgaria has become a popular holiday destination for Israeli tourists. Memories, indeed, run short.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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