The Bulgaria Bus Bombing: Should Iran be the Only Suspect?

Almost immediately after the bombing of a Bulgarian bus filled with Israeli tourists in the resort city of Burgas that killed at least 5 Israelis and injured dozens of people, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu identified the perpetrator(s) as having carried out the attack at the behest of Iran.

“All signs point to Iran,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “In just the past few months we’ve seen Iran try to target Israelis in Thailand, Indian [sic], Georgia, Cyprus and more. The murderous Iranian terror continues to target innocent people. This is a global Iranian terror onslaught and Israel will react forcefully to it.” The accusation was echoed by Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, and other Israeli officials.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry and the Iranian Embassy in Sofia have denied that Iran was involved in a statement issued on Thursday that said, “The groundless statements of different statesmen from the Zionist regime accusing Iran for participating in the incident with the blown up bus with Israeli tourists is a well-known method of the Zionist regime pursuing its own political goals.” Iran also identified itself in the statement as a “victim of the Zionist regime’s terrorism, including the murder of nuclear scientists,” while stressing “the long-lasting friendship between the Islamic Republic and Bulgaria, which is based on mutual respect for their interests.” Hezbollah also denied involvement, claiming that it would not have targeted tourists.

Bulgaria, which maintains embassies in both Tel Aviv and Teheran and hosts embassies from both Iran and Israel in Sofia, has thus far abstained from casting blame on Iran. Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov was quoted in Haaretz today saying that “it is wrong and a mistake to point fingers at this stage of the investigation at any country or organization”, adding that “We are only in the beginning of the investigation and it is wrong to jump to conclusions.” Mladenov emphasized that Bulgaria had “excellent cooperation with the Israeli security forces in matters pertaining to the investigation.”

The Israeli Line

Mainstream newswire coverage has largely followed the logic of the Israeli narrative, which situates the bombing in the context of a timeline of attacks on Israelis, many of them thwarted, that have been attributed to Iran over the past several months and go back years and even decades. Proof of direct Iranian responsibility in any of these attacks is scarce and speculative, although many, at one point or another, were blamed on Iran or its proxies.

Yesterday Andrew MacDowell of the Christian Science Monitor asked, “Why in Bulgaria, and Why Look to Iran?” without answering either part of the question satisfactorily. Following the Israeli line of reasoning, most media have suggested that the motive for the attack was the 18th anniversary of the bombing of the AMIA  Jewish community center in Argentina, in which Israeli sources insist Iran was implicated. Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (aka WINEP or “the Washington Institute”), writing for Peter Beinart’s recently launched Open Zion website, opens with the question “Did  Hezbollah Do It?” and bases his unequivocally affirmative conclusion on the AMIA anniversary. On the same website, Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) writes that although no evidence has yet been presented, the Iranian government “is a very likely suspect.”

Other terrorism experts are more cautious, however, telling Lobelog, “It’s too soon to know.”

What gives Israel’s accusation against Iran both punch and pungency is the apparent lack of alternative explanatory variables for journalists covering the unfolding story. But such variables do exist. What follows are some relevant aspects of the Bulgarian bombing case that have been largely overlooked or ignored in news reports thus far. None of these exculpate Iran or Hezbollah. Nor should the claim made by a jihadist group that Bulgaria is a “legitimate target” for terrorists be mistaken for the opinion of the author, who, does not “blame the victims,” be they Israeli, Bulgarian, or American. The only intent here is to shed light on the possibility that responsibility might lie elsewhere and ought to be investigated before hasty retaliatory action is taken.

Where Israeli and US anti-terrorism priorities diverge

Since 9/11, there has been an inherent tension between US and Israeli anti-terrorism priorities. As Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman point out in their book Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, while the focus of US anti-terrorism has been on Al Qaeda, Israeli leaders and intelligence analysts don’t consider Al Qaeda to be particularly interested in Israel, and regard Iran as far more worrisome to the Jewish state.

In the days after the horrific events that took down the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon and took over  3,000 lives, Israeli leaders called for retribution against Iran, even though Al Qaeda’s responsibility was quickly established and almost universally accepted. In most of the recent efforts to carry out attacks on Israelis abroad, Israeli insistence that Iran was responsible has distracted attention from the very real possibility that Sunni Islamic extremists linked to Al Qaeda might be behind the attack.

Why Bulgaria?

The collapse of the former Soviet Union and the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact offered numerous countries in Eastern Europe the opportunity to ally with the West. Bulgaria, which was part of the Multinational Force in Iraq from from December 2003 until May 2008, was granted NATO membership in April 2004, ten years after it had initiated the admissions process in March 1994. Bulgaria also applied for EU membership late in 1995 and was only admitted on Jan. 1, 2007.  Bulgaria signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US in 2006, agreeing to host American military bases and training exercises. The deal attracted relatively little publicity, remaining under the global radar until February 2011 when Wikileaks exposed the pressure on Bulgaria to modernize its military by purchasing advanced aircraft and naval vessels from Western countries for NATO deployments. Attention was also drawn to US-Bulgarian military cooperation this past April, when a Bulgarian MIG 29 fighter jet crashed during joint drills with the US Air Force.

According to Ivan Dikov, writing for Sofia Speaking:

Ever since a decade ago Bulgaria became an unconditional ally of the USA and even enlisted in the first “Coalition of Willing”[sic] of George W Bush in Iraq, joining in Afghanistan shortly before that, and the Bulgarian medics were jailed in Libya as scapegoats in an affair with HIV-infected blood, numerous experts started warning that Bulgaria was threatened with terrorist attacks…this was a warning about a potential transfer of global and regional conflicts on Bulgarian soil. On July 18, 2012, this threat materialized…

In October 2010, Bulgaria’s Minister of Defense Anyu Angelov announced that in 2013, Bulgaria would send  700 combat troops to Afghanistan, supplementing its current 500 plus troops who largely do guard duty. Not long after the announcement, in an interview with the Bulgarian daily “24 Hours,” Sheikh Abu Sharif, speaking on behalf of the Al Qaeda-linked Sunni Islamist group Asbat al-Ansar, demanded that the Bulgarian government remove its troops from Afghanistan “before it is too late.” Sharif declared that Bulgaria was considered a legitimate target of Al Qaeda because it has sent its soldiers to support the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Sofia News Agency reported on Oct. 22, 2010:

Asbat al-Ansar is featured in the United States’ list of terrorist organizations for alleged connections with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. The leader of the group is Ahmad Abdel Karim al-Saadi, aka Abu Mahjan. After he went underground in 1999, his brother, Abu Tariq, has fronted the group.

The organization believes in a strict interpretation of Islam. It employs a “defensive jihad” to fight perceived attacks on Islam. As such, the group seeks to purge any Western influences or anything deemed un-Islamic from Lebanon.

In 2004, Asbat al-Ansar voiced vocal condemnation of the US presence in Iraq and urged insurgents to kill US personnel.

The group has also cooperated with another organization, al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which was responsible for the beheading of the Bulgarian truck drivers Ivaylo Kepov and Georgi Lazov in July 2004.

Although Asbat al-Ansar is based in Lebanon and might not be considered much of a threat to a European NATO member, the Director of Bulgaria’s National Intelligence Service (NRS), Kircho Kirov, apparently took the threat seriously: “We have to be very vigilant when receiving a warning, coming from an extremist organization like this one.” Mohd Abuasi, an expert from the Bulgarian Center for Middle East Studies, also responded to the threat, noting that Bulgaria was not yet a priority for Al Qaeda or other Jihadist organizations because they did not know much about it, but that there is a “real possibility” that they might start paying attention to it:

“Some officials’ make statements that sound anti-Islam, like the statements by the minister of defense that Syria and Iran are a threat to the country. Also, the ridiculous police operations against Muslims in the Rhodopes are absolutely groundless and only create tension. If this continues, terrorist organizations will start looking at Bulgaria as a target,” Abuasi said.

A shortfall of Israeli intelligence agencies?

That Israelis visiting Bulgaria might be the target of terrorists was apparently recognized earlier this year when, according to Al Jazeera English, Israeli public television reported in January that Bulgarian authorities had foiled a bomb attack after they discovered an explosive device on a chartered bus that was to have taken Israeli tourists to a ski resort. Nonetheless, after the attack on the Israelis in Burgas on Wednesday, Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev said that the authorities had met with Israel’s Mossad a month earlier, during which there was no warning of an expected attack. Plevneliev stressed that Bulgarian and Israeli authorities were in close communication with one another and would have taken serious action had Bulgaria received any advance intelligence warning from Israel.

Considering the enormous resources that Israel devotes to the “Iranian threat,” the Israeli Mossad likely would have uncovered some clues that Iran or Hezbollah were planning an attack in Bulgaria, particularly on Israelis. Undoubtedly they would have shared the information with the highest levels of the Bulgarian government. That they did neither raises the question of whether Israel’s intelligence services might be too focused on the threat posed by Iran, while underestimating the threat posed by Al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups.

Allegations published earlier today on the Bulgarian website that identified the man believed to be the perpetrator — a long-haired Caucasian male (possibly in a wig) shown pacing in security footage one hour before the attack — as a former inmate of Guantanamo Bay, are being dismissed as false by the Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior. It is not yet clear whether any elements of the report, which was picked up by the Times of Israel, Atlantic Wire and the Canadian National Post, are accurateInterior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov claims that the “ring around the perpetrator is tightening up,” adding that no details will be available until the investigation of the attack has been concluded.

The latest update we have at the time of this posting is that an unidentified “senior American official” has confirmed “Israel’s assertions” to the New York Times. These are the relevant half quotes and information attributed to the unnamed official:

  • The official said the current American intelligence assessment is that the bomber was “acting under broad guidance” to hit Israeli targets when the opportunity presented itself. That guidance was given to Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group, by its primary sponsor, Iran, he said.
  • The attacks, the official said, were in retaliation for the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists by Israeli agents, something that Israel has neither confirmed nor denied. “This was tit for tat,” said the American official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the investigation was still underway.
  • The bomber was carrying a fake Michigan driver’s license, but there are no indications that he had any connections to the United States, the American official said, adding that there were no details yet about the bomber — his name, age or nationality. He also declined to describe what specific intelligence — intercepted communications, analysis of the bomber’s body parts and other details — that led analysts to conclude that the suicide bomber belonged to Hezbollah.

Is that enough to make the content of this post irrelevant? You be the judge.

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



  1. Marsha, as usual makes some good points. There is one distinct possibility that she doesn’t consider, that of a false flag account. The Mossad has admitted to these in the past. Even if the attack wasn’t a false flag attack, it’s possible that Israeli intelligence stood down. It’s not beyond the pale, it’s not above our our gov’t nor that of the Israeli gov’t to sacrifice a few for the greater good. If this weren’t the case, we’d be far more reticent to engage in hostilities which sacrifice a few poorly connected of our own for larger Machiavellian ambitions.

  2. Hizbollah confronted the full force of the Israeli army in 2006 and forced Israel into a retreat. Iran has the capability to defend itself against an attack from Israel. So why would these strong forces resort to killing a few innocent civilians in a foreign country? This attack and many others, are false flag ops, to justify another war. Haven’t these people lied before? Did they not lie about Iraq’s WMD? Has the world forgotten? Everybody knows that a consent is being manufactured for a war on Iran, and this attack should be seen in this context.

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