Bulgaria's terror attack: a democratic test

The response by Bulgaria's authorities to the mid-summer killing of Israeli tourists reflects the country's lack of experience of international terrorism, as well as specific internal democratic deficits. In such a context there is now a danger of overreaction, says Daniel Smilov.

Daniel Smilov
13 November 2012

A suicide-bomb explosion in Burgas airport on 18 July 2012 killed six people, five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian bus-driver, as well as the perpetrator himself. The attack occurred while a group of Israeli tourists that had just arrived in the Black Sea resort was boarding a bus intended to transport the visitors to a local resort.

The Israeli authorities immediately linked the assault to Hizbollah and Iran. They supported the charge by noting that it took place on the anniversary of a terror attack on a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires in 1994, and by claiming there had been numerous phone-calls between Burgas and Lebanon in the days before the incident. Moreover, Hizbollah's Al-Manar TV station was broadcasting details of the bombing, with excited commentary, almost as soon as it happened.

Bulgaria's authorities and society were taken aback by this, the first act of international terrorism on Bulgarian soil. The only significant precedents were domestic. In 1925, the bombing of Sofia's main cathedral by the country's Communist Party - intended to kill the Tsar and the entire government - took the lives of around 150 people. The Tsar escaped death (miraculously, it seemed to many) because he happened to be late in arriving, though many members of the military and political elite died. In 1985, a bomb planted on a train exploded in a carriage where mothers and their children were travelling, and seven people perished. The pretext was the Communist authorities' policy to force Bulgarian Turks to change their Turkish names to Burgarian ones.

In the two transition decades after 1989, despite social tensions and bouts of mafia-style violence, terrorism as an issue had no place on Bulgaria's domestic political agenda. It is no surprise, then, that the government, security services and people alike were unprepared for the attack in Burgas. The moment of panic after the explosion was brief, however, as the authorities focused on providing medical care to the survivors and (with help from United States, Israeli and other security agencies) investigating the cause.

The inquest

Yet awkward questions about the operation of Bulgaria's security services were inevitable. Three issues came to the fore in the days following the attack. First, a particular embarrassment arose from media reports in early 2012 that Israeli intelligence had information about the planning of a terrorist act against Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. It seemed that the Bulgarian authorities had not taken these warnings seriously enough, for the Burgas event exposed the absence of any additional security measures vis-à-vis Israeli groups.

Second, Bulgaria's wiretapping efforts had apparently not picked up any terrorist threat, even though its courts give more than 10,000 permissions per year for surveillance of telephone communication: a number which itself is problematic. It was Israeli services, not Bulgarian, who spotted the intense telephone traffic between Burgas and Lebanon on the eve of the attack.

Third, the lack of swift progress in the inquiry into the terrorist act became a source of criticism. It was revealed that the suspected suicide-bomber had a false identity, but attempts to identify him or to establish whether he had local accomplices thus far have failed. More generally, there is no conclusive evidence on which group, state or organisation is responsible for the terrorist act.

In such a situation Bulgaria is understandably very cautious about placing the blame on Iran and/or Hizbollah. Even though they are indeed the most likely perpetrators of the act, this needs to be proven beyond any reasonable doubt before the charge is made. The Bulgarian authorities appear to be far from such a level of certainty at the moment.

Thus, the terrorist act in Burgas has exposed flaws both in terrorist-prevention (domestic and international) in Bulgaria, and in the investigation of successful terror attempts. The history of the country, the absence of such threats in recent times, means that criticism should be restrained. Yet the ease with which the attack was perpetrated has created an atmosphere where the security services' new vulnerability now makes them prone to post-factum overreaction intended to convince the public of their newfound vigilance.

The test-case

The tendency of overreaction became apparent in a much publicised trial against "radical Islam", which started shortly after the terrorist act (although the indictment had been brought to court before it). The state-prosecutors' office, on evidence provided by the security services, had started proceedings against thirteen Muslim clerics. The charges relate mostly to the propaganda of anti-democratic ideas, as it is argued that the clerics are Salafists. The court case has attracted huge media and public attention. There have been demonstrations by both Muslim and nationalist groups in the town of Pazardzhik, where the case is heard. It has provoked an angry reaction from parts of the sizeable Muslim community in the country (around 10% of the population), and has become a tool of mobilisation for the nationalists in view of the parliamentary elections due in 2013.

Among the many democratic deficits revealed by this experience, two are worth highlighting. First, from the point of view of constitutional and legal standards, the evidence invoked by the prosecutors fails to distinguish clearly between advocacy of ideas, and the existence of plausible and immediate danger for the democratic order in the country (say, related to the use of violence). Criminal sanctions are in general disproportionate where the mere propagation of anti-democratic ideas is concerned, and in this particular case there seem to be no proofs that the clerics have taken any steps towards action of a subversive sort. It is too early to analyse the case in depth; but its timing, and the massive involvement in it of the secret services, create the impression that it has become a vehicle for the authorities to demonstrate their capacity to tackle the issue of radicalism and terrorism.

Second, the media coverage of the event is also problematic, since it tends to fan public fear of "radical Islam" without trying to critically examine the facts. The case has become a huge media opportunity for the nationalists and (to a lesser degree) the representatives of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS, the party of the Turkish minority) who use it for purposes of voter mobilisation.

If this analysis is correct, it shows the tendency of contemporary democracy to overreact to terrorism and to make it a pretext for questionable domestic policies. In the Bulgarian context, it is quite clear that the Burgas terror attack and the activities of the thirteen clerics have absolutely nothing in common. But in a situation of public fear created by an act of terrorism, hard-pressed state-security agencies are tempted to undertake and report actions that might be unrelated to the real source of a threat, or to go well beyond the necessary response. Nationalists and the media also pick up easily on the topic, since it understandably captures the public attention.

The guarantees against such overreactions offered by a contemporary liberal democracy are both familiar and fundamental: an independent and efficient judiciary, a pluralistic and non-populist political process, and independent and responsible media. Bulgaria's judiciary has been the focus of harsh criticism from domestic and international observers, as well as the media in the country.

In terms of political process, the Bulgarian landscape does feature nationalistic and populist players (such as the Ataka party), which thrive on fears of people of different religious beliefs and identities. Thus, the wider aftermath of the Burgas attack, such as the case against the Islamic clerics, has become a test of the maturity of Bulgarian democracy.

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