International Terrorism Comes to Bulgaria

SOFIA— When five Israeli tourists and their driver were killed by a suicide bomber at the Bulgarian seaside resort of Burgas on July 18, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately blamed Hezbollah, a group backed by Iran. But Bulgarian authorities were more cautious in assigning responsibility for the blast, for a number of reasons.


The first concerns Bulgaria’s own experience with terrorism and the trajectory of its relations with Israel. The attack represented the first case of Islamist terrorism in Bulgaria, and the first successful terrorist strike against Israeli citizens in the European Union for more than two decades. Bulgarians were frustrated to learn that their country had joined the list of targets of Islamist terrorism. They are particularly proud that their ancestors saved the lives of thousands of Bulgarian Jews by preventing their deportation to Nazi death camps during World War II. Consecutive Bulgarian governments after 1990 had also tried to develop excellent relations with Israel following decades of Cold War isolation, and over the last few years, Bulgaria witnessed a rapid increase in the number of Israeli tourists visiting the country’s resorts.


Another reason for frustration relates to Bulgaria’s counterterrorism capabilities being exposed. The responsibility for this lapse in national security has turned into a subject of bitter public and political debate in the Bulgarian media. But the truth is that preventing acts of terrorism requires a wide network to monitor the organized activities of diverse groups and communities, which is what the state of Israel has done for decades now to sustain its relative security. Bulgaria’s security institutions should be focused on efficient partnerships within the Euroatlantic space and on monitoring Bulgarian territory and borders.


Minority issues also present a unique set of challenges to Sofia. Bulgaria has the largest Muslim minority in the EU — 10-12 percent of its population — which includes Turks, Bulgarian Muslims (Pomaks), and a small but growing community from the Middle East. The Bulgarian governments of the last two decades were reluctant to intervene into the communal life of Muslims after the communist regime’s attempts in the 1980s to forcibly change Muslim identity. Religious schools often promoting radical Islam emerged in the Rodopa Mountains and the northeast of the country with the support of radical Islamic foundations from the Middle East. Young Bulgarian clerics, educated in Saudi Arabia and other Arabic countries, are influenced to preach Wahabite theology against the local Balkan tradition of moderate Islam. Local activists of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) — the party that enjoys the greatest support among Muslims — are reported to receive generous and informal benefits from these foundations, although this is denied by MRF. Meanwhile, human rights lawyers have attacked several attempts by governmental institutions to reduce radical Islamism.


While there is no evidence yet linking the Burgas attack with Bulgarian Muslim communities, the country’s security services will have little choice but to enforce stronger control over the intrusion of radical Islamism into local Muslim communities in order to avoid having potential terrorist threats incubate on Bulgarian soil. The same prevention measures might apply to the Middle Eastern community in Bulgaria, which is a motley group representing the diversity of a rapidly changing region: Arab immigrants from the Cold War period, representatives of radical movements and authoritarian regimes, and business people affiliated with various organized groups in the Middle East. Bulgaria has departed from its old status of an island of relative tranquillity. The country is part of a globalized world today, with all the attendant risks, benefits, and duties.


Ognyan Minchev is a non-resident fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Balkan Trust for Democracy.

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