Even before the blast in Bulgaria, intelligence officials were seeing signs of a dangerous escalation in what had until recently been a campaign of covert, tit-for-tat strikes targeting diplomats and — inside Iran — nuclear scientists.
Earlier this month, Kenyan authorities arrested two Iranian men in connection with a plot to bomb several Western and Israeli businesses in that East African country. The suspects, identified by Kenya as members of an elite Iranian military unit, had brought with them more than 220 pounds of RDX, a powerful military explosive strong enough to destroy a large hotel.
As far back as January, the Israeli government has sounded warnings about a growing terrorist threat in Bulgaria, a country whose Black Sea beaches have become a popular destination for thousands of Israelis each year.
After Wednesday’s attack, Israeli officials were quick to blame Iran, but Israel did not release evidence linking Iran or Hezbollah to the incident. U.S. intelligence officials said they have not seen proof, though they did not dispute the link.
A series of Iran-linked plots in the fall and winter had mostly targeted diplomats and embassies. Iranian nationals and Hezbollah operatives had been implicated in attempted assassinations of Israeli, U.S. and Saudi figures in five countries. In one incident, Iranian operatives allegedly sought to hire Mexican gang members in a foiled plan to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington.
The attacks paused for several months during the spring, a lull that coincided with preparations for nuclear talks between Iran and the United States and five other world powers. But as the negotiations faltered in June, new plots surfaced, this time with civilians as primary targets.
In a plot eerily similar to Wednesday’s attack, authorities in Cyprus announced July 7 that they had detained a Lebanese man who confessed to entering the country to plan attacks on planes and buses used by Israeli tour groups.
The 24-year-old Lebanese man arrested by Cypriot police had traveled to the country on a Swedish passport, and he acknowledged under questioning that he was affiliated with Hezbollah, according to Israeli officials and Cypriot police reports. A search of his hotel room turned up documents detailing plans to blow up either a plane or tour bus. The material also revealed that the man had been collecting information about flight schedules of charter planes from Israel, as well as the routes of tour buses.