Terrorist Attack on Israelis In Bulgaria: Mossad Failure? What Does Espionage do Next?

By Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv

Six Israelis were killed — and their Bulgarian tour bus driver, too — by a suicide bomber who was hanging around their bus at an airport on Wednesday.  Around 30 Israelis were wounded, a few very severely.  And now, this terrorist attack stokes fears of a Middle East war.

israel spy, covert operations, spies against armageddonBased on our knowledge of Mossad and Israelie intelligence—see our new book, Spies Against Armageddon—it’s not fair to label this as a failure for Israeli intelligence.  True, the Israelis did not pick up signs of advance planning by a terrorist group.  But no intelligence agency can be perfect.  During the past four and a half years, dozens of similar plots aimed at Israeli interests around the world — including  Israeli civilians, even specifically in Bulgaria six months ago — were foiled by excellent intelligence.  Much of the preventive work was done jointly by the Mossad with the CIA. 

But Israel’s intelligence agencies have turned the page and responded to what their ultimate boss — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — requires now. When we look at the official statement from his office in Jerusalem, shortly after the attack that may have been a suicide bombing, we might conclude that Netanyahu wants the Mossad to prove that Iran stands behind the attack:


The Prime Minister said: “All signs point towards Iran.  Over the last few months we have seen Iran’s attempts to attack Israelis in Thailand, India, Georgia, Kenya, Cyprus and other countries. Exactly 18 years to the day after the horrendous attack on the Jewish Community Center in Argentina, deadly Iranian terrorism continues to strike at innocent people. This is a global Iranian terror onslaught and Israel will react firmly to it.” The Prime Minister sends his condolences to the families of the victims and wishes a speedy recovery to the wounded.


We can note that in Argentina, when Jewish community leaders marked the 18th anniversary of the truck bomb that destroyed the AMIA (Jewish community) building in Buenos Aires, they told reporters that there is new information that links Iranian government officials to that attack in 1994 that killed 84 people, mostly Argentian Jews.  Two years earlier, a powerful bomb flattened Israel’s embassy in Buenos Aires — killing 29 people.  Argentinian officials believe that the two bombings, in 1992 and 1994, were carried out by the same combination of Iranian diplomats and Shi’ite Muslims — affiliated with the Lebanese Hezbollah radicals — based in South America.


By Thursday morning, Defense Minister Ehud Barak was saying that Iran stood behind the bombing in Bulgaria — apparently using Hezbollah again.  Barak said: “There are terrific successes for our intelligence agencies and those of our partners,” but there are also occasional failures — which he called “painful moments.”


When asked if some Bulgarian officials are correct in suggesting that Israeli intelligence may have had advance warning but failed to inform Bulgaria, Defense Minister Barak said Israel’s secret agencies told Bulgaria everything they know.  Israeli officials say there were indications of some threat in Bulgaria, but not enough to issue a “travel warning” to Israelis — including the civilians, mostly teenagers, who had just flown to Bulgaria for a vacation but ran into an explosion, bloodshed, and death.


Barak mentioned that he did not think there was the kind of specific information that Israeli intelligence was able to get — in advance — about Iranian agents planning to attack Israelis in Cyprus and Thailand at the start of this year.


Is there a link with the fact that on the precise date of the Bulgarian attack — July 18 — Israel’s enemies had murdered 84 people, mainly Argentinian Jews, in that community center in Buenos Aires?  Probably not.  Iran and Hezbollah may not have even remembered the date.  They had been trying for at least four years, on most any date and at any time, to kill Israelis and Jews.  Hezbollah (perhaps like its paymasters in Iran) seems intent on wreaking some sort of revenge for the assassination of Hezbollah’s “military chief” Imad Mughniyeh — who was on America’s Most Wanted Terrorists list.  Mughniyeh was killed by a car bomb — certainly the work of the Mossad — in the heart of Damascus, Syria, in February 2008.


Hezbollah and Iran have tried to strike Israeli targets in Azerbaijan, Thailand, Georgia, India, last week in Cyprus, and last January in Bulgaria.  Most of those incidents — plus a few that have not been publicized — were prevented by good intelligence gathered by Israel and by the CIA.  The one this week in Bulgaria was not.


Now Prime Minister Netanyahu obviously wants proof of who did order the attack on Israeli teenagers. If there is “proof positive” that Iran did it, then Netanyahu, Barak, and other top ministers in the inner “security cabinet” will have to decide how to respond.  It is not in the traditional Israeli playbook to turn the other cheek.  But one does not lightly decide to bomb targets in Iran.


Some commentators wonder if Israel would use this incident as an “excuse” to use its air force to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.  Or, is it conceivable that Israel’s air force would take the huge risk of a long-distance mission to strike a Quds Force based in Iran, basically to make the point that no one attacks Israelis with impunity?  It doesn’t seem likely.  The United States would certainly counsel against it.


It is far more likely that after Israeli intelligence identifies particular Hezbollah cells — perhaps in Europe, perhaps in Lebanon — the Israelis will find ways to strike at those cells.  In a shadow war that has been underway for about 30 years — and is particularly hot since the assassination of Mughniyeh in Syria in early 2008 — the Israelis killed in Burgas, Bulgaria, this week are only the latest victims.  And they will not be the last.

July 19, 2012

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