A bus, full of Israeli tourists was blown up Wednesday in the port city of Burgas, Bulgaria. There were 7 deaths and approximately 30 injuries. The incident happened at the city’s Sarafovo airport, shortly after a direct flight from Tel Aviv operated by Air Via, landed. An ominous coincidence is that a situation like this occurred exactly 18 years ago to the day, when in 1994, 85 people died in Argentina following an attack on a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires.
Hezbollah denied responsibility for Wednesday's bombing, but regardless, the perpetrators remain at large. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already issued the protocol blame against the usual suspect, Iran, but this does not help in finding those responsible.
The wider question is whether this tragedy is an isolated incident, or if its deliberate symbolism is a hint for something worse to come? The destabilization of Syria and the Islamic political turn in post-Arab spring regime transitions suggests that Israel may find itself not only in deeper international isolation, but that regular Israelis are also increasingly becoming a target abroad.
A brief background to terrorism in the Balkans:
Bulgaria is a country on the crossroads of three continents and on the gate of the Middle East. It is an area, vulnerable to terrorism, illicit trafficking and related security risks, simply because of its locale. Radical Islamic cells with potential terrorism roles are not unknown, both inside of Bulgaria and in the Western Balkans – particularly in areas dominated by Muslim populations in Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, and parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina. By setting the precedent, it is not impossible to imagine further attacks, for instance, on the synagogue in Sofia – and if New York, London, and Madrid can fall victim to terrorism, small countries do not stand a chance by comparison.
Sponsorship of radical Islamist groups in the Balkans, often guised as charitable organizations, by the wealthy Gulf monarchies, is a risk that must not be underestimated. There are several primary constraints to acting against such groups: notable examples are their legal status as charities or educational groups and the uneasy political, ethnic and religious peace in FYROM, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.
The primary vehicle for political representation of Muslims in Bulgaria is an ethnic Turkish party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. It began as an illegal terrorist organization in the early-mid 1980s, in response to assimilationist state policies, but in the amnesty given to political prisoners in the early 1990s, managed to adjust and carve a space for itself as a legitimate political force. Its leader, Ahmed Dogan, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of terrorism and was incarcerated in 1988, but released upon the end of the communist regime. The particular reason cited for his arrest, was a bomb planted in a railway car in the city of Plovdiv, in 1985, which resulted in the death of seven people, including two children.
The underlying point is that Turkey’s relatively recent shift against Israel, alongside its own international support networks, does not preclude it from being a net sponsor of radical Islamic terrorism.
Return to diplomacy:
While this incident is not going to hurt bilateral relations on the political level between Bulgaria and Israel, it will negatively impact economic relations and the psychological willingness of Israelis to travel abroad. The round of condemnations from the international community is not going to help resolve this.
In a broader foreign policy perspective, we must avoid interstate conflict. Should Israel become involved in a war with Iran in the aftermath of this incident, the civil war in Syria might end prematurely, as the Assad regime will get a chance to legitimize itself by declaring Israel as an enemy of Islam – and that would be sufficient to unite regime and opposition to the chagrin of the West, and may become too great of a challenge for Israel to deal with as well.
The Balkans have always been a source of, as well as a destination for terrorism, and Bulgaria is not separate from that process, despite the best efforts to counter it. The Islamic brand applied to it is a recent historical development in the region – previously, nationalist causes have motivated terrorism more than religious ones. The question is whether the attack in Bulgaria will set off a chain reaction of terrorism, or worse, a hot war in the Middle East? In any case, diplomacy must take center stage, because the stage is set for an otherwise deadly fall of dominoes.