Former Mossad chief: “Better to wait” before accusing Iran in Bulgaria bus bombing

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Former Israeli intelligence chief Danny Yatom said Thursday that while it’s logical to assume that Hezbollah or Iran were behind the July 18 Bulgaria bus bombing that killed seven people, assigning culpability should probably have waited until the evidence is solid.

“Usually it takes some time to locate those who were behind the bombing, and those who sent them,” the former Mossad chief told journalists on a call organized by The Israel Project Thursday.

“From the modus operandi used by some organizations, it’s logical to assume that Iran or Hezbollah or Hezbollah and/or Iran were behind this terror attack,” Yatom said. “As long as we don’t have solid information about it, it’s better to wait.”

“All signs point to Iran,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday of the attack on the bus of Israeli tourists at Bourgas airport on Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast, in which seven people, including five Israeli tourists and two Bulgarians, were killed, and 30 injured. “In the past months we saw Iranian attempts to attack Israelis in Thailand, India, Kenya and Cyprus. This is an Iranian terror offensive that is spreading throughout the world.”

Bulgarian authorities on Thursday released a video of the man suspected of being the bus bomber, and said that he was carrying a fake Michigan driver’s license. ABC News obtained a photo of the suspect’s fake Michigan driver’s license, which identifies the man as Jacque Felipe Martin, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, born in 1987.

US intelligence assesses that the suspect was a member of a Hezbollah cell operating in Bulgaria, the New York Times reported Thursday, citing an unnamed senior U.S. official.

The assessment came as Sweden denied unconfirmed reports that first appeared in Bulgarian media that initially identified the suspect as a Swedish citizen of Algerian descent. “We can confirm that it was not Mehdi Ghezali,” Mark Vadasz, sa pokesman for Sweden’s security services, told.told McClatchy News.

The Caucasian looking man, as seen on the airport security video, “either had turned with his backpack toward the bus when he exploded it or pretended he was one of the group putting his backpack in the baggage compartment under the bus,” a Bulgarian official told the New York Times.

Yatom, who served as Mossad chief from 1996-1998, and subsequently as chief of staff to then Israeli Prime Minister, now Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, said the thousands of Israeli tourists who travel to the Bulgarian Black Sea coast were likely seen as a relatively soft target for terror groups like Hezbollah. “Approximately 80,000 Israelis travel to the area a year. Our Israelis became a simple target to attack. The place is not secure or was not properly secured.  Wherever there are groups of Israelis, it is easy to identify.”

Yatom said international counter-terrorism collaboration had vastly improved over the past few years and helped thwart a number of other attempted recent attacks. But he said the highly compartmentalized nature of some terrorist plots made it very hard to get early warning. Israel apparently did not have early warning of a specific threat against Israeli tourists in Bulgaria or it would have issued a travel warning, he said, and alerted Bulgarian authorities.

Yatom said the latest attack on Israeli civilians in Israel’s long war with terrorist organizations reinforced why Israel considers the prospect of Iran with a nuclear bomb an unacceptable threat.  A nuclear Iran “will threaten to use it to [try to] prevent Israel from taking action in the security arena,” he said.

Regarding the Syrian conflict, Yatom expressed sincere empathy for the thousands of Syrians being slaughtered by the very security forces “obliged to protect them.” From a security standpoint, Israel is very concerned at the prospect that Hezbollah could acquire some of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, he said, and is vigilant to use all measures to prevent that from occurring. A rocket armed with chemical weapons that hit an Israeli population center could cause thousands of deaths, he said.

Israel also faced the prospect, as the conflict continues, that thousands of Syrian refugees may eventually try to flee into Israel. “Once the influx of refugees try to cross Israeli borders, we will accept them and help them,” Yatom said.

Updated: This post was updated July 19 at 4pm EST with the McClatchy News report that Sweden denied the suspect was Mehdi Ghezali, and with the New York Times reporting the US intelligence assessment that the attack was carried out by a Bulgaria-based Hezbollah cell.