How Bulgaria became a terrorist target
July 19th, 2012
01:55 PM ET

How Bulgaria became a terrorist target

By James Wither, Special to CNN

Editor's note: James Wither is professor of National Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. The views expressed are solely those of the author.

The bus bomb attack on Israeli tourists at Bulgaria’s Burgas Airport represents the first significant success for what some have alleged are Iranian-backed terrorists who have mounted a sustained campaign against Israeli diplomats and tourists around the world.

Just a few days before the Burgas attack, a suspected Hezbollah operative was reportedly arrested in Cyprus. He was found with information on resorts, flight schedules and tour bus companies frequented by Israeli tourists. However, the Israeli Counter Terrorism Bureau didn't issue a specific travel warning to tourists following this arrest.

Burgas Airport was an easy target, but arguably no easier than most other European airports. In Israel, airports have routine outer perimeter screening of passengers and visitors. In the absence of a specific warning, enhanced security of this kind is neither considered financially viable nor practicable for airport authorities elsewhere. Bulgarian security services have published security camera pictures of the suspect, a young, long-haired man with a backpack, who posed as a normal holiday traveler and hung around the airport for an hour before he placed the bomb in the hold of his chosen target bus.

Such an attack, then, could have been equally successful at hundreds of other airports around the world. So why was Bulgaria singled out?

Wednesday’s bombing is the first terrorist attack in Bulgaria since the Communist era. Unlike the U.K. or Spain, Bulgaria isn’t considered a key European target for international terrorists. Corruption and transnational crime represent much greater threats to Bulgarian security than terrorism. However, after the events of September 11, 2001, Bulgaria identified itself as a close ally of the United States and has maintained close diplomatic relations with Israel.

Since Bulgaria sent a contingent of troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan to demonstrate solidarity with the United States’ war on terror, Bulgarian security authorities have recognized that the country could become a target for terrorism.  Clearly, the Burgas bombing caught the Bulgarian security forces by surprise, perhaps not least because Bulgaria itself wasn’t the terrorists’ target.

As a precaution, Shin Bet has suspended flights from Israel to Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia, Greece, Turkey, Azerbaijan, South Africa and Thailand. If the Iranian-backed Hezbollah are, as claimed by Israel, behind the attack in Bulgaria, further attempts at terrorism against Israeli citizens abroad can be expected as a consequence of the long running proxy war between Israel and Iran. Bulgaria has become an increasingly popular tourist destination for Israelis, especially since relations between Israel and its former ally Turkey cooled.

All this means that Israeli tourists may be less inclined to book holidays to Bulgaria in the immediate future. But Israelis, arguably more than any other nationality, will recognize the truth of Kristalina Georgieva’s concluding remarks that terrorist attacks like this “can happen anywhere”.

The author is a U.S. government employee. The views presented in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Defense or U.S. government.

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Topics: Europe • Iran • Israel • Terrorism

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