Bulgaria has released the names and images of two fugitives, including a Canadian, who are alleged to have plotted the bombing a year ago of a bus filled with Israeli tourists in the Black Sea resort of Burgas.
The Bulgarian Interior Ministry, which previously said the two suspects were dual nationals based in Lebanon, identified them on Thursday as 25-year-old Canadian Hassan El Hajj Hassan and 32-year-old Australian Meliad Farah, also known as Hussein Hussein.
The emerging details of the attack, which has been blamed on the militant Shia group Hezbollah, and other recent developments, have led experts to say it is evidence the Iranian-backed group has been increasing global operations, using operatives with dual citizenship who can travel with Western passports to target Israelis around the world.
Canada and the United States consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization. After a long debate, the European Union agreed Monday to put the armed wing of Hezbollah on its terrorism blacklist.
“I think the Bulgarians did not want to release this information prior to the EU decision on banning the military wing [of Hezbollah] because they did not want to be seen as trying to overly influence that decision,” said Matthew Levitt, a former U.S. Treasury Department official who is a director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The suspects were seen in the three weeks before the July 18, 2012, attack, in towns around Burgas, Bulgarian officials allege, adding that the men rented cars and checked into hotels using the fake names Brian Jeremiah Jameson, Jacque Felipe Martin and Ralph William Rico.
A key piece of evidence linking the plot to Hezbollah, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Tuesday, was the discovery that the Burgas bomb was similar to a cache found by Israeli security forces in Nazareth, a month after the attack. Haaretz said the device also matched bomb-making material seized by police near Bangkok in January, 2012, in a probe against an alleged Lebanese-Swedish Hezbollah operative, Atris Hussein.
“It’s part of a global campaign by Iran and Hezbollah against Israel. The case in Cyprus is even clearer,” said Shaul Shay, a former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council.
He was alluding to the conviction last March of another Lebanese-Swedish national, Hossam Taleb Yaacoub, who was accused of helping plan attacks on Israeli tourists in Cyprus.
Mr. Levitt also referred to two other incidents in Bulgaria. Seven months before the Burgas bombing, Israeli media reported a foiled bomb attack against a bus taking Israeli tourists from Turkey to a Bulgarian ski resort.
A few weeks after the Burgas attack, an unidentified woman in her 50s, believed to be a dual Iranian-Canadian citizen, was arrested on suspicion that she was conducting surveillance on a Jewish community centre in Sofia. Mr. Levitt said the woman, who travelled on a Canadian passport, is believed to have been deported.
“The bottom line is, there has been surveillance by Hezbollah in Bulgaria … There is plenty of activity going on.”
Mr. Levitt has argued that Hezbollah has ramped up operations to avenge the 2008 bomb attack that killed its military chief, Imad Mughniyyeh, but had limited success initially.
Despite the increasing ambitious scope of its attacks, some of the tradecraft remained crude, Mr. Levitt has said, noting that one of the Burgas suspects used a fake Michigan driver’s licence – but showing the Louisiana address of a casino in Baton Rouge.
Last February, federal cabinet ministers John Baird and Jason Kenney said the Canadian suspect was a dual national now back in his native Lebanon. They said the man immigrated to Canada when he was eight and left at age 12 when his parents divorced.
Officials in Bulgaria have said they’ve built a compelling case thanks in part to information supplied by Canada.
The bomb exploded aboard a Bulgarian bus taking a group of tourists to a hotel, killing five Israelis, their Bulgarian bus driver and the bomber.
Officials previously said the two fugitives entered Europe with their real Canadian and Australian passports, then used faked papers made in Lebanon.