Bulgaria bombing catches country unprepared

Media in the small country have been overly credulous in covering a July 18 attack on Israeli tourists.

Israeli Victims Of Bulgaria Bus Bomb Return Home
An attack on a Bulgarian bus on July 18 took the lives of five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian citizen [GALLO/GETTY]

It has been almost two weeks since the bombing in Burgas, Bulgaria, that killed five Israelis and one Bulgarian, and the investigation has still not yielded answers. Foreign security agents and experts flooded the country to help local authorities trace the organisers. One newspaper alleged that the Israeli secret services have completely taken over the investigation and are blocking out their Bulgarian counterparts, which is putting in question whether the Bulgarian public will ever know the truth about the bombing.

Just a few hours after the explosion, Israel already named their suspects: Iran and Hezbollah. Israeli and Western media followed its lead and spread the news with the speed of light. Overnight small, quiet Bulgaria was unwillingly pulled into the whirlwind of the “international terrorism” rhetoric, which various individuals, governments and states have been using for their own survival for the past two decades.

 Israel blames Iran for Bulgaria bus bombing

Bulgaria was unprepared for such an attack, said many commentators at home. They immediately pronounced the failure of the government, intelligence, airport security, police, border control, foreign policy, etc. The Bulgarian cabinet, state institutions and the opposition exchanged accusations of who is to blame for the attack, while the media stoked the fire with provocative questions about political responsibility.

Unprepared for ‘War on Terror’

But Bulgaria was not unprepared for an attack: it was unprepared to resist the “war on terrorism” that has been sweeping across the world, imposing a new normality that people have stopped questioning. Hostile Israeli and American rhetoric poured into Bulgaria, eliminating any critical public discussion about what exactly happened on July 18 at the Burgas airport.

The bombing in Burgas took Bulgarian media by surprise. Until then, media outlets were happy to report terrorist attacks by copying and pasting lines from big Western news agencies, without questioning how the events were framed. Startled and unsure how to respond to a terrorist attack happening in Bulgaria, the media was cautious in the beginning. As soon as Israel blamed Hezbollah and Iran for the attack, Bulgarian media reported with more confidence that it was a terrorist attack.

From then on, it relied heavily on what was being said on Israeli media. Every time an Israeli official accused either Iran or Hezbollah for the attack, it was immediately reported in Bulgaria. Various Israeli officials were interviewed about “who did it” and their opinion was treated as an “experts say” fact, regardless of what their qualifications were. One Bulgarian channel interviewed “one of the best journalists in Israel”, who said with authority that a fingerprint of a member of Hezbollah had been found at the airport. Another TV channel interviewed a former police chief from Tel Aviv who also said the attack looks like the work of Hezbollah.

Bulgarian media also reported claims made by various American officials who had also said Iran and Hezbollah were responsible. Even the New York Police Department, which was recently implicated in spying on the Muslim community in New Jersey, chipped in with their opinion, saying the bombing in Burgas was part of a series of attacks planned by the Iranians and their Lebanese accomplices. The Bulgarian government denied these reports repeatedly, but to no avail.

Weak security?

Then various foreign experts told us that Bulgaria was targeted because its security system is weak. One of the members of the Israeli reaction teams sent shortly after the blast told Bulgarian journalists that it is easy to move around freely at the Burgas airport. Another expert, the former chief of security for Israeli airlines El Al, said in an interview for a Bulgarian radio station that there was “nothing normal” about the behaviour of the suicide bomber, who was “walking back and forth with two heavy bags, not putting them on the ground. And besides he was alone”. This strange behaviour should have been noticed by security, he said.

The media immediately grabbed onto this argument and started “checking” security around the country. Media outlets constantly ran stories about the lack of special security for Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. Days after the attack it was reported that there was no police securing an Israeli youth basketball team playing at a competition in Sofia. Even personal luggage is loaded onto buses without any security procedures, said one TV channel. Bulgarian politicians, public figures and analysts accused the government of not taking security seriously and not responding to a warning by the Israeli government of a planned attack in January.

Busy with sensationalism, the Bulgarian media and public did not pay attention to important conversations that should have taken place as a result of the bombing. No one brought up the topic that the one Bulgarian victim of the attack, Mustafa Kyosov, was a Bulgarian Muslim, who left a wife and a little girl. Not one official from the government went to his village to attend the funeral, despite all the official ceremonies for the Israeli victims. There was no discussion of the fact that our Muslim community, albeit ignored by the state, is living peacefully in Bulgaria. No media outlet that discussed or challenged the use of the word “terrorist”.

Despite the stream of ‘terror’ rhetoric, a part of the Bulgarian public is still resisting the new normalcy of permanent fear of a ‘terrorist threat’.

No analysts tried to dig deeper into the Israeli and American rhetoric, either. The Israeli government is currently in crisis. Just a day before the bombing, the Kadima Party decided to leave the ruling coalition, which is pressuring Netanyahu to call for early elections. The country has also been shaken by broad social discontent. On July 14, Moshe Silman set himself on fire in protest against the worsening living conditions in Israel. On Sunday, another man followed his example. Netanyahu has many reasons to seek to divert the attention of the Israelis, by saying that Iran is threatening the security of the country. Obama, on the other hand, has an election to go through this year, so his administration has taken the opportunity to reassure the Israeli lobby in the US that once again they’ve got Israel’s back.


Meanwhile, paranoia is quietly creeping into the Bulgarian public. The Bulgarian authorities immediately tightened security in airports, bus and train stations, and concerned citizens nodded approvingly in front of TV cameras. Yes, there needs to be more security and more surveillance, they said. Little by little, new witnesses began claiming to have interacted with the suicide bomber. An employee of one car rental company, where the bomber allegedly had tried to get a car, described his accent as “definitely Arab”. A local news website in Burgas, which allegedly had inside information on the autopsy of the bomber’s head, said the man had white skin, light-coloured eyes and European features, but that “experts were sure he was of Arab descent”. The public space buzzed with phrases like Islamic fundamentalism, Islamists, (Muslim) terrorists, al-Qaeda, terrorist cells in Bulgaria, etc.

Despite the stream of “terror” rhetoric, a part of the Bulgarian public is still resisting the new normalcy of permanent fear of a “terrorist threat”. They recognise the absurdity in the words of those who claim Bulgaria needs to be put under constant surveillance and that walking aimlessly at an airport with two heavy bags makes one a terrorist. They do not want Bulgaria to be sucked into the power games of other countries once again, because history has proven that this has been a mistake. As one of the mourners in Mustafa’s village put it: “If they are going to kill each other, they should do it on their own territory.”

Mariya Petkova is a Bulgarian freelance journalist based in Cairo.