Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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The EU+Hizballah=Cynicism

by Steven A. Cook
March 15, 2013

The Achille Lauro (Courtesy Reuters).


Hizballah has been in the news recently.  The group that a senior U.S. government official once described as the “ ‘A-team’ of terrorism,” took a back seat to al-Qaeda over the last decade.  Prior to the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001, Hizballah was responsible for more American deaths than any other organization on the State Department’s list of terrorists.  The most spectacular of Hizabllah’s operations since the organization’s founding in 1982 was the destruction of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in the spring of 1983.  More recently, the Bulgarian government fingered Hizballah for the July 2012 bus bombing that killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian bus driver in the resort town of Burgas.  Also, the New York Times reported last week that the Lebanese newspaper, al Akhbar—a pro-Hizballah daily—has been engaged in an effort to intimidate prosecution witnesses set to appear before the International Criminal Court, which is trying four members of Hizballah for the murder of former Prime Rafik Harriri.  Then there are the thousands of Hizballah fighters in Syria supporting the Assad regime in that country’s civil war.

By far the most interesting Hizballah-related development is the trial of one of the organization’s operatives, Hossam Taleb Yacoub, in a Cyprus court.  The trial, which ended a week ago, shed light on Hizballah’s efforts to track Israelis and locate Israeli targets not just on Cyprus, but throughout Europe.  Yet neither the revelations in the Limassol courtroom nor the Bulgaria bombing has yet moved EU officials to designate Hizballah a “terrorist organization.”  That’s right, despite its long and bloody history, Hizballah is not, according to EU-acrats, a terrorist group.  Yes, the organization has engaged in violence, but it is more complicated than that.  One might surmise that officials in Brussels have embraced ideas about Hizballah, mostly associated with Western academics with the help of local “informants,” that because the organization is deeply-rooted in Lebanese society, has military and political wings, is part of the government, and is engaged in “resistance,” it cannot simply be qualified as a terrorist organization.

I am all for many shades of gray, but these claims about Hizballah, which are at base an effort to explain away its violent history, are both debatable and highly unlikely to be the reason for the EU’s approach to the organization.  Instead, the EU’s reluctance to designate Hizballah a terrorists organizations fits into a broad European pattern in which principle is set aside in favor of expediency  to prevent terrorists  from bringing their violence to European streets.  This is nothing new.  Italy’s prime minister in the mid-1980s, Bettino Craxi, perhaps best exemplifies this kind of cynicism. In the fall of 1985, Craxi did everything possible including ordering a larger Italian police force to prevent U.S. Special Forces operators from capturing the perpetrators of the Achille Lauro hijacking.  The Italians claimed sovereignty over the NATO airbase where American warplanes had forced the EgyptAir flight that carried the terrorists to land.  Although Craxi ordered the arrest of the four terrorists who took the ship and who subsequently spent years in Italian prison,  the leader of the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), Abu Abbas, who had masterminded the plot, was quickly released. It is possible that Craxi, who led the Italian socialists, felt some sort of vague ideological connection with Abu Abbas and his Marxist PLF or that he was taking a stand against the United States, but it is more likely that the Italian government did not want to invite any trouble onto themselves. Abu Abbas was convicted in absentia in 1986 (how convenient for Abbas and Craxi), but it was not until 2003 and the invasion of Iraq when the American forces captured him outside Baghdad.  The Italians are not the only ones guilty of accommodating terrorists and extremists. The Germans harbored members of the Front Islamique du Salut during Algeria’s lost decade much to the dismay of the French.  Until September 11 and then the London bus bombings in 2005, the Brits were generally laissez-faire when it came to those who were suspected of engaging in violence or at the very least encouraging violence.  Europe is also a bastion of Kurdistan Worker’s Party (known as the PKK) fundraising.

The problem with the “let’s not make trouble by arousing the ire of terrorists by calling them what they are” is that it does not work.  According to the evidence gathered in Cyprus after the arrest of Yacoub, who is a Swedish citizen, Hizballah has vast and sophisticated intelligence and operations networks in Europe. If the resistance to identifying Hizballah as a terrorist organization is because Europeans fears blood on their soil, the Burgas bombing indicates it is too late and the Yacoub trial suggests there is more to come.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Michael

    Amen! Well put, as usual, by my favorite Middle East expert.

  • Posted by Issandr

    Are you sure the EU refrains from designating Hizbullah as a terrorist organization because it is afraid of attacks? Seems to me it’s more of a case it does not want to have to break ties with Lebanon, whose government includes Hizbullah, for a complex range of reasons: the need for Europeans of Lebanese origins to have ties to their country, business, diplomacy, closer ties of countries like France with Hizbullah allies such as Michel Aoun etc.

    This is not so unusual. The US for instance never designated the IRA as a terrorist organization.

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