Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counter-terrorism said during an address at the Brookings Institution on Tuesday, December 18th that following an intensive US lobbying campaign, that they expected the European Union to finally designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
Mr. Benjamin said, “We’ve been engaging with our partners in Europe and we are cautiously optimistic – at last – about the prospects for an EU designation of the group”. He also noted the fact that the EU was presented with concrete information about suspected Hezbollah plots on European soil.
Media sources reported that Benjamin indicated that the Europeans will have to “think hard about things in the next few months”, but did not offer a specific time frame as to when the anticipated designation would become official.
The chief proponents in the campaign to exhort the EU to include the Lebanese-based Shiite Muslim movement on its list of terrorist organizations have been the United States and Israel. During his address, Benjamin said the United States is “urging countries to take a wide range of range of steps to crack down
on Hezbollah and the Qods Force.”
Most recently, US officials have publicly argued that the EU designation would be of great assistance with enforcement efforts against the organization and its varied criminal activities.
According to Matthew Levitt, director of the counter-terrorism program at the Washington Institute and author of a current book on Hezbollah, a terrorist designation could be both financially and politically devastating for Hezbollah. Indicating that there is definitely momentum gaining ground against Hezbollah in Europe, Levitt said, “It’s not that people are gung-ho about it. It’s that people are less resistant.”
Benjamin corroborated this assessment by saying that the people of these countries were less focused on bringing others down and are more interested in improving their own lives. “The populations that have historically produced lots of the extremists; these people aren’t interested in violent extremism but in building better lives for their families and their communities within the international system,” he said. He did add, however, that despite these sanguine developments, “This is not a reason to relax.”
Levitt pointed to a series of cases of attacks or attempted attacks in which Hezbollah was suspected to be behind. Benjamin revealed to the media that the US has made efforts to share information with their European counterparts on the escalation of Hezbollah’s activities in their region.
The terrorist designation would have an impact on Hezbollah, but it depends on how the designation is done,” Levitt said. “It would be more effective if the EU were to classify the entire organization.” After all, Levitt pointed out, money is fungible. Ten dollars ostensibly raised for a hospital could easily be diverted to buy bullets. He continued, “it’s more likely that the EU would only classify the “bad parts” of Hezbollah, such as the militant wing, rather than the entirety. That would be more comfortable for the EU.”.
“Hezbollah is still a duly elected party in Lebanon,” Levitt explained. “There’s nothing illegal right now about raising money for Hezbollah in Europe. But this would be a clear and distinct shot across the bow. It would have a huge impact on Hezbollah’s stability.”
Accusing Hezbollah of orchestrating the July bombing of a tourist bus in Burgas, Bulgaria that killed five Israeli tourists, the US and Israel said that less than two weeks earlier, a plot against Israelis in Cyprus was disrupted. Earlier this month, the Bulgarian government announced that major strides were made in its investigation of the bombing and will be presenting the results in January at an EU meeting. Officials have said that If direct links of Hezbollah’s involvement can be established by the Bulgarian government then this could be a decisive factor in the EU’s determination on whether to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
“Obviously if the Europeans feel that the proof is decisive then they’ll have to confront the fact that Hezbollah carried out an attack in Europe,” Benjamin said.
Hezbollah is already classified as a terrorist group, in whole or in part, by the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Israel, Egypt, and Bahrain. The US, the UK and the Dutch have previously called upon the EU to classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and British Foreign Secretary William Hague has said that he would “like to see the EU designate and sanction the military wing of Hezbollah.”
In October of this year, John Brennan, a terrorism adviser to the White House, told reporters that, “Failure to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization makes it harder to defend our countries and protect our citizens. We call upon our European allies and partners – including the EU – to join us, not only in recognizing Hezbollah’s terrorist and criminal activities, but in condemning and disrupting those activities.”
Levitt said that the designation “depends on what happens with the investigation in Cyprus and Bulgaria. I don’t think it’s happening tomorrow. But I can tell from personal experience, that there is greater receptivity to the idea, and less of a knee-jerk reaction against it.”
Speaking ahead of his departure from the State Department, Benjamin told the Brookings Institute that overall, al-Qaeda’s appeal and that of other extremist groups of this ilk is decreasing
“There are clearly indications that the al-Qaeda message continues to wane in popularity,” he asserted. Benjamin said a number of Middle Eastern governments are engaged in activities that are assisting towards the erosion of the capabilities of this and similar groups.
Observing that the September 11th attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others dead raised a wake up call to many of the formidable threat posed by such terror groups, Benjamin said, “These governments increasingly show the will to tackle the terror threat.”
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