Bulgaria suffered its first international terrorist attack after a bus of Israeli tourists was bombed on July 18th, 2012, with a carnage leaving 7 dead and more than 30 wounded;
The initial official and expert assessment point to international Islamist militants attack, although there is no firm evidence at the time of writing about this;
Despite apprehensions about negative impact on the tourist season and the economy in general, the initial reactions indicate that the influence of the attack would be very limited;
In the afternoon of July 18, 2012, Bulgaria suffered its first act of international terrorism. There was an explosion at 5:30 pm near a bus with Israeli tourists at the Burgas airport, shortly after their plane from Tel Aviv landed at 4:50 pm. The group was heading for a Black Sea resort. Seven people died and thirty two injured. The victims were 5 Israeli tourists, the Bulgarian bus driver (himself coming from a Bulgarian Muslim community) and the alleged perpetrator.
The initial police reports say that it was probably a suicide bomber, who mingled with the tourists and staff of the bus and detonated a bomb among them. Taxi drivers and bystanders were also injured. The images that emerged from the scene were of carnage that Bulgarians have only seen on international news in foreign lands.
The emergency crews reacted swiftly and authorities at all levels – from the mayor of Burgas to the prime minister, the president and a host of ministers rushed to the site of the event. Security at critical infrastructure and public areas was stepped up. Allied governments offered their condolences and help. An investigation on the attack with the aid of international partners was started immediately.
The international context: were there any signs what was coming?
Bulgaria, a NATO and EU member, has been part of the international anti-terrorist coalition but it was only hypothetically target of terrorism. It enjoys good relations with Arab and Muslim countries, imbuing sense of relative safety. But although Bulgaria has never been a target of international terrorism, there were signs recently that this might be changing.
Bulgarian authorities received a warning from Israel back in January 2012 that attacks against Israeli tourists should be expected. Media reports claimed that an attacked was foiled thanks to intelligence sharing. In recent months, there were reports about thwarting attacks against Israeli targets around the world – Thailand, India, Kenya and more recently in closer proximity to Bulgaria - in Azerbaijan, Georgia and reportedly Turkey. Just a few days before the Burgas attack, an attack on Israeli tourists at a Cyprus airport was allegedly prevented in mid July 2012.
In the case of the July 18th attacks in Bulgaria, there was apparently no preliminary intelligence information as Bulgaria, Israel and their allies reported no hints of the impeding attack. There were reports pointing to the coincidence of the timing as there was the attack on the same day in 1994 on a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires.
The Israeli government was quick to blame Iran and Hezbollah for the attack in Burgas. However, both of the accused sides have denied the accusations and. The Bulgarian government prefers not to point fingers until direct evidence emerges of who might be involved.
The local context: Muslim and Jewish communities in the country
Bulgaria hosts a large, traditional Muslim minority (7,4% Sunni Muslims and 0,4% Shia Muslims - out of the total population)– of ethnic Turks, Bulgarian-speaking Muslims and some Muslim Roma. The new Muslim minorities from the Arab or other countries are quite small, numbering possibly a few thousand people.
The Jewish minority is also very small, numbering some over 1100 people, as the majority of the community left for Israel in the late 1940s and 1950s. Some Israeli citizens have settled recently in the country, but their number is very limited.
Bulgaria had no previous experience with international terrorism
Bulgaria has never experienced international terrorist acts on its soil, ever more so in recent times. It suffered some terrorist acts in its history – the only examples are the activities of the communist party in the first half of the 20th century and occasionally the feuds of extremists’ organizations in the 1920s and 1930s. The communist regime reportedly harbored international terrorists (e.g. Carlos the Jackal, the Kurdish AKP, Baader-Meinhof, the Muslim Brotherhood) in the 1970s and 1980s as part of its struggle against the West.
During the post-communist transition the country witnessed bombings and contract killings but they were all small scale and all exclusively related to organized crime.
In the 1990s and 2000s, as Islamic terrorism emerged as the main security threat Bulgaria has never been considered in security reports as a possible base for international terrorism, including Islamic terrorism, while neighboring Western Balkan states or Turkey were pointed as more likely potential bases of operation or routes of entry.
The implications for the local economy and tourism
Bulgaria heavily depends on its tourist sector and the Burgas region is the most popular destination for foreign tourists in Bulgaria, with share of more than 30%. The Burgas airport is the second busiest in the country with 2.3 million passengers in 2011. Revenues for the Bulgarian economy from foreign tourists reached 2.8 billion euro in 2011, that is 11% of the total exports of goods and services. In 2011 Bulgaria was visited by 8.7 million foreigners, about 1.6% of them were from Israel. Some 140,000 Israelis visit Bulgaria every year. Bulgaria has become a popular tourist destination for Israeli tourists all year round, but of course the favorite season and place are the summer beaches of the Black Sea. In 2012, the tourist sector expected some 150,000 visitors from Israel. Despite the small share, the number of Israeli visitors, most of which tourists, is rapidly increasing (by more than 30% in the last three years). The total number of foreign tourists is increasing in the last 2 years because Bulgaria is relatively cheaper destination and is not affected by the financial crisis in the neighbouring Greece or the political tensions with Turkey.
Initial reports show that the attack is not likely to affect substantially the tourist season and the economy as the cancellation rates for tourist bookings was extremely low.