“They wanted to have Cyprus as a base, to be able serve Hezbollah’s purposes,” he told police. “I don’t know what the purpose was.”
His workload increased in late 2011, just as the wave of terrorism efforts attributed to Hezbollah and Iran was about to peak. Yaakoub received detailed instructions to monitor charter flights bringing Israelis to Cyprus.
Arkia, a small carrier, flew directly from Tel Aviv to Larnaca International Airport. The airline sometimes altered its arrival information for security reasons, so Yaakoub spent many hours staking out the airport, recording flight information and watching passengers board special buses to the island’s resorts.
Between flights, Yaakoub carried out a long list of tasks involving surveillance and data collection. He drew maps of the areas around the resort hotels, noting security stations and the proximity of police and rescue units. He took photographs of hotel entrances and parking lots. He purchased prepaid cards for local cellphones and noted the locations of Internet cafes. He inquired about renting warehouses for what he said were unknown purposes.
In the days before Yaakoub was arrested, he scouted beach locations near Larnaca and watched the passengers of an Arkia flight spill out of their aircraft and head toward waiting shuttle buses, scribbling coded details in a small red notebook.
“I took the initiative of writing down the registration numbers of the buses,” he said.
Will the E.U. respond?
Yaakoub’s statements and other evidence are being weighed by a Cypriot judge overseeing one of the island’s most politically explosive cases in years. A verdict is expected early next month.
At issue, analysts say, is not only Yaakoub’s guilt or innocence but also the broader question of whether Cyprus and other European Union countries will take a harsher attitude toward Hezbollah. While the United States designed the organization as a terrorist group, the E.U. continues to view it as a political party.
U.S. officials said they hope evidence linking the attack in Bulgaria and Yaakoub’s plotting to Hezbollah will persuade the Europeans to move against the group and restrict its movements and fundraising.
For the Americans, time is important. Current and former U.S. counterterrorism officials said Hezbollah’s ambitions and reach have expanded in the past two years, coinciding with tougher sanctions on Iran. At least a dozen plots linked to the group or Iran have been foiled, including botched bombing attempts in India, Thailand, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kenya.
In the most notorious plot — the failed attempt in late 2011 to murder the Saudi ambassador to Washington — Iranians financed a scheme to blow up a popular Georgetown restaurant using hit men from a Mexican drug gang.
Other targets have ranged from Jewish schoolteachers to U.S. diplomats. When arrests have been made, authorities have found evidence linking the suspects either to Hezbollah or Iran’s Quds Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Western analysts have suggested a variety of motives for the attempts, ranging from intimidating Iran’s Gulf Arab rivals to exacting revenge for the assassinations of four Iranian nuclear scientists since 2010, which Iran has attributed to Israel’s Mossad intelligence service.
No attempted attacks have been reported since the bus bombing in Bulgaria, but authorities in several countries have uncovered future operations against Israeli or Western targets. Last Thursday, security officials in Nigeria announced the arrest of three men who they say received training in Iran for terrorist strikes aimed at hotels popular with Western and Israeli tourists.
“It isn’t a declared war, but it was virtually that,” said a European diplomat whose country has been closely involved in investigating the string of attempted attacks. “Iranians saw themselves under attack, and they felt compelled to respond. They don’t differentiate between different international players, because they look around the world and see one big conspiracy against them.”