Friday, May 29, 2015

29-May-15: Wary eyes on Hezbollah's Cyprus and Southern Lebanon battlefields [UPDATED]

The bomb-making materials were found in this Larnaca residence
[Image Source]
Reuters (via Lebanon's Daily Star) says today that some 400 boxes - two tons, 67,000 packages - of ammonium nitrate stashed away in the basement of a private home in the coastal town of Larnaca, Cyprus, led police there to suspect and then arrest an unnamed Canadian and detain him in connection with terrorism charges. The few published facts include that he is 26 and born in Lebanon.
Ammonium nitrate is a fertilizer but in large quantities can be mixed with other substances to make a powerful explosive... [P] police suspected Israeli interests were the target, and one said that authorities believed the ammonium nitrate had been amassing at the residence for some time... Cyprus is a popular holiday destination for Israelis and the island hosts an Israeli embassy in Nicosia... The suspect arrived in Cyprus in the third week of May and had been staying at the two-storey house in a residential suburb... [Reuters, today]
Reuters does not get around to mentioning it but the suspect had €10,000 in cash on him [Cyprus Mail, May 28, 2015] when arrested.

And this:
The Phileleftheros newspaper [Cyprus' major news source] said the 26-year-old man, who was remanded in custody on Thursday, belonged to the Lebanese organisation's military wing and had personal links to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
How involved with terror is Cyprus? Here's what Reuters writes:
Despite its proximity to the Middle East, Cyprus has seen little militant-related activity in recent decades. Its last major security incident was a botched attack on the Israeli embassy in 1988, which killed three people. In 2013 a Swedish citizen of Lebanese descent was jailed in Cyprus on charges of plotting an attack on Israeli tourists. He said he had been asked by Hezbollah to track the movements of Israeli tourists on the island, but denied he was planning any attack. [[Reuters, today]
Though they call it "little militant-related activity", Cyprus does have some sense of what might be going on under its noses. In that 1988 attack
a car packed with explosives exploded on a Nicosia bridge, killing three. The car was meant to target the Israeli Embassy. [CBC News Canada, yesterday]
Then just over two years ago (as we reported here: "21-Mar-13: First conviction of Hezbollah terrorist in a European court"), another Lebanese, this time with a second Swedish passport, was convicted in a Cypriot court of "membership in a criminal organization", meaning Hezbollah. The charges had originally included terrorism; they were reduced a year before the trial to merely criminal matters.

The offences then (and as seems likely this time too) involved preparing to attack Israeli tourists on Cyprus. The accused happily admitted that he has was with Hezbollah, had been since 2007 and that he did "relatively simple tasks", like hand-carrying packages between European cities, observe Jews (!), watch Israeli flights land in Cyprus, go to and from Dubai, and record the activities of buses carrying Israeli tourists. He also admitted to having been trained to use RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47 assault rifles and machine guns: "I work for my party. Whenever they asked me to do something, I delivered."

The murderous Hezbollah attack on Israelis in the airport car park of the Bulgarian Black Sea resort Burgas in the summer of 2012 seems to been executed by people with just that sort of training and rather similar goals.

At the time of the March 2013 criminal conviction, Hezbollah was not classified as a terror organization by the EU. Then four months later, the EU governments finally acted, deciding in the wake of the Cyprus court decision
to list the armed wing of Hezbollah as a terrorist group because of concerns over its activities in Europe... The US and Israel have spent years urging the EU to outlaw Hezbollah outright... But the EU ignored pressure... to ban the Lebanese organisation outright... [The Guardian, July 22, 2013]
[Here's a link to our commentary at the time: "22-Jul-13: One of Hezbollah's "wings", the terrorist one, is finally outlawed in Europe"]

From an Israeli standpoint, the issues go way beyond pressure or politics. We saw a memo earlier this week, authored by Omri Ceren at The Israel Project, reflecting some of the current thinking about what Hezbollah stands for (whether outlawed or not). A handful of relevant highlights:
  • [T]here's a lot of chatter in the Middle East about a summer war between Israel and Lebanon... On one hand the Israelis and Hezbollah are saying the same thing: all of southern Lebanon is now one big military compound. But only the Israelis are pointing out that Hezbollah has made sure that in that compound there are tens of thousands of civilians. 
  • The Israelis can't afford a war of attrition with Hezbollah. The Iran-backed terror group has the ability to saturation bomb Israeli civilians with 1,500 projectiles a day, every day, for over two months. They will try to bring down Tel Aviv's skyscrapers with ballistic missiles. They will try to fly suicide drones into Israel's nuclear reactor. They will try to detonate Israel's off-shore energy infrastructure. They will try to destroy Israeli military and civilian runways. And - mainly but not exclusively through their tunnels - they will try to overrun Israeli towns and drag away women and children as hostages. Israeli casualties would range in the thousands to tens of thousands.
  • Hezbollah is counting on the resulting deaths of their human shields - and they've guaranteed to that the body count will be significant - to turn Israel into an international pariah...
  • [Iranian-backed Hezbollah] has built a sprawling underground array of tunnels, bunkers and surveillance outposts along the border with Israel, which it is manning at peak readiness for battle... highly-advanced, with durable concrete, a 24-hour power supply via underground generators, a ventilation system to prevent damp from damaging military equipment and a web of secondary escape shafts in case of attack... housing tens of thousands of rockets ready for launch...
In Europe, they deal with such issues via lawyers, judges and prosecutors. Here, the urgency, lethality and scale of the potential consequences demand a much broader, sharper and more expensive approach - one that most people on our side wholeheartedly would have preferred to see avoided.

UPDATE Friday July 3, 2015:
Cyprus jailed a member of the armed wing of Hezbollah for six years on Monday after he pleaded guilty to charges of stockpiling explosives to attack Jewish targets abroad. Hussein Bassam Abdallah, 26, who has dual Canadian and Lebanese nationality, was arrested in late May after Cypriot authorities found 8.2 tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, a potential explosive, in the basement of a house in the coastal city of Larnaca. Abdallah pleaded guilty to charges of possessing explosives, conspiracy to commit a crime, aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation and participation in a terrorist group, the state Cyprus News Agency (CNA) reported. Authorities believe that the ammonium nitrate had been stockpiled in Cyprus since around 2011 and held in the basement of a home in a residential neighbourhood of Larnaca. In a statement to police, Abdallah said the fertiliser would have been used to attack Jewish or Israeli interests in Cyprus, CNA reported. [Reuters]

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