Israelis fear more attacks abroad in wake of Bulgaria bus bombing

Confidence appears to be growing that the Bulgaria bus bombing was part of an Iranian and Hezbollah campaign against Israeli interests abroad.

Bulgarian Interior Ministry/AP
This image taken from security video provided by the Bulgarian Interior Ministry on Thursday, July 19, purports to show the unidentified bomber (c.) with long hair and wearing a baseball cap, at Burgas Airport in Burgas, Bulgaria, on Wednesday, July 18.

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The identity of the suicide bomber who blew up a bus carrying Israeli tourists in Bulgaria remains unknown, but the conviction is growing that he was linked to Hezbollah and Iran, and with that a belief among Israelis that there will be more attacks like this.

Investigators are working off of a fake Michigan driver's license and fingerprints to identify the bomber. Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov announced at a news conference today that the bomber was not a Bulgarian citizen, although officials are still unsure of his nationality, Reuters reports. He also said investigators were following several leads, including one that the man was working with an accomplice, and denied earlier reports that the man was linked to a local Hezbollah cell.

The Bulgarian prosecutor disclosed yesterday a man believed to be the bomber tried to rent a car in a nearby town prior to the attack, but the rental agency turned him down because his license appeared suspicious, according to the Associated Press. Mr. Tsvetanov said that the man had been in the area for at least four days before the attack.

Bulgarian authorities have released CCTV footage from the airport that shows the man they believe to be the bomber wandering the terminal with a baseball cap, T-shirt, and plaid shorts. He is carrying a bulky backpack believed to contain the bomb, AP reports.

Those who encountered the bomber prior to the attack – the rental agency agent who refused to rent the bomber a vehicle and the taxi driver who took him to the airport – said the man seemed calm and nothing in his behavior flagged him as suspicious, according to AP and Agence France-Presse.

An anonymous US official told The New York Times yesterday that the bomber was a member of a Hezbollah cell in Bulgaria – which Tsvetanov denied at the news conference today – acting on orders from Iran to strike any Israeli target that presented itself. 

“This looks like he was hanging out for a local target, and when this popped up he jumped on it,” the official said, referring to the bus carrying the Israeli tourists.

According to the official, the attack was in retaliation for the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, which Iran has blamed on Israel (and Israel has neither claimed nor denied). Until now, the speculation has been that the attack was revenge for the 2008 killing of Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyah, of which Israel has also been accused.

Hezbollah has a reputation for taking revenge for attacks on its members. But The Christian Science Monitor reports that Hezbollah has denied culpability in this attack, insisting that it wouldn't kill tourists to avenge Mr. Mugniyah. "From Hezbollah’s perspective, avenging Mughniyah requires selecting a target with reciprocal value, such as a high-profile political or military figure in Israel," according to the Monitor.

Sources told AFP that investigators were looking particularly closely at Bulgarians who have recently converted to Islam, as well as any Lebanese living in the country, because of the Hezbollah link. 

"This was an attack against Israeli interests," Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov said today, according to AFP. "The aim was to show that Israeli citizens can be attacked anywhere in the world."

Military correspondents Avi Isaacharof and Amos Harel write in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that, barring decisive action by Israel on Iran's nuclear program, the tit-for-tat small attacks will continue. Citing the numerous attempts on Israeli targets in the past few months in India, Georgia, and Thailand, among others, Israelis should be prepared, they write.

Clearly, [Iran's] preference would be to strike at a more "prestigious" target: an embassy, a senior diplomat or politician on a visit abroad, an Israeli plane. Because the Iranians have not succeeded in this so far, and because it is important for them to exact a price from Israel for the assassinations of Iranian scientists and Hezbollah leader Imad Mughriyeh [Mughniyah], they apparently consider even a tourist bus a worthy target. There is no reason to be impressed by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's denial of any connection to this week's attack. Israel should deploy for the possibility of more attempts to perpetrate more of them.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation and international police force Interpol have arrived in Bulgaria to assist with the investigation, AFP reports.

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