Iran’s Ideological Expansion: Europe

The long arm of the Iranian regime extends to Western Europe and the Balkans, where the Islamic Republic has worked since the 1979 Islamic Revolution to establish a network of cultural centers, mosques, universities and seminaries to promote its Shi’a Khomeinist ideology. This pro-Iranian NGO network serves as a conduit for Iran to embed intelligence agents and IRGC-Quds Force operatives on the European continent and provides a base of support and recruits for Hezbollah’s criminal and terroristic activities in Europe.

Since the Islamic Republic’s founding, Iran has sought to infiltrate Muslim immigrant communities throughout Europe in order to spread Ayatollah Khomeini’s “Islam of the Disinherited.” Hezbollah’s active presence is the most potent manifestation of Iran’s ideological expansion into Europe. The terrorist group has operated on the continent at the behest of its benefactor and strategic partner, Iran, since the group’s founding in the 1980s.

Hezbollah’s flourishing in Europe occurred as an outgrowth of the influx of refugees fleeing Lebanon’s civil war during the 1980s. The group’s first foray into terrorism in Europe took place in 1983, when Hezbollah’s militant Islamic Jihad wing took credit for bombs placed at a train station and aboard a train from Paris to Marseille. Over the next few years, Hezbollah operatives carried out a series of hijackings, bombings, and assassination plots. Hezbollah’s terrorist activities in Europe were primarily in service of Iranian interests, with targets selected in order to punish countries that backed Iraq in the ongoing Iran-Iraq war, or to silence Iranian Kurdish and MEK dissidents.

Following the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war, there was a lull in Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorism on the continent for the better part of two decades. However, Hezbollah continued to utilize Europe “as a staging ground for operations to be carried out elsewhere, as a logistical hub, and as a place where the group and its supporters could raise funds through a variety of criminal enterprises.” Narcotrafficking is foremost among Hezbollah’s criminal enterprises in Europe, with Europe serving as the final destination for drugs emanating from Hezbollah’s West African network. Other criminal activities carried out by Hezbollah in Europe include currency counterfeiting, weapons trafficking, document forgery, and money laundering. Europe’s open societies and borders have made it an ideal arena for Hezbollah to operate.

Hezbollah’s criminality was further abetted by a lax European Union (EU) enforcement regime, whereby EU member states, with the exception of the Netherlands, failed to proscribe the group as a terrorist organization and effectively appeared content to allow it to carry out criminal, political, and fundraising activities unimpeded so long as it refrained from terrorist attacks on their soil. Although European security services had monitored Hezbollah members and supporters, they failed to detect the development of Hezbollah sleeper cells. Alexander Ritzmann, a policy adviser at the Counter Extremism Project in Europe, warned in 2012, “They (Hezbollah) have real, trained operatives in Europe that have not been used in a long time, but if they wanted them to become active, they could.”

Ritzmann’s warning came to pass in July 2012, as Hezbollah’s free reign in Europe metastasized into a return to terrorist activities. Hezbollah undertook two major plots that summer, one foiled and one successful. In July, Cypriot authorities arrested a dual Lebanese-Swedish citizen and Hezbollah member for his role surveilling potential targets in a plot to attack Israeli tourists. Hossam Taleb Yaacoub told Cypriot investigators, “I was just collecting information about the Jews. … This is what my organization is doing, everywhere in the world.” Later that same month, a Hezbollah suicide bomber destroyed an Israeli tour bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, killing the Bulgarian bus driver and five Israelis, and wounding more than 30 others. In an investigation, the Bulgarian government found Hezbollah responsible for the attack.

With Hezbollah’s culpability in the Burgas bombing established and international condemnation of the group rising due to its pernicious role in the Syrian civil war, the EU moved in July 2013 to designate Hezbollah’s military wing, but not the organization as a whole. The EU pointed to Hezbollah’s social services network and participation in Lebanese parliamentary politics as a justification for this half-measure, with some member states citing concerns to the safety of their personnel engaged in peacekeeping missions in southern Lebanon and others arguing that a full designation could further destabalize Lebanon. In announcing the designation of Hezbollah's military wing, former EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton stated, “We also agreed that the delivery of legitimate financial transfers to Lebanon and delivery of assistance from the European Union and its member states will not be affected.”

Hezbollah’s resumption of terrorist operations in Europe exposed the lie that the organization had two distinct wings, one “political” and one “military.” Due to the fungibility of money, Hezbollah’s fundraising activities in Europe, both licit and illicit, ultimately pad the organization’s bottom line, freeing up funds for the organization’s terrorism activities in the Middle East and beyond. High-ranking Hezbollah officials themselves have denied the bifurcation of the group’s activities insisted upon by European officials. In 2012, Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General Naim Qassem declared, “We don't have a military wing and a political one; we don't have Hezbollah on one hand and the resistance party on the other...Every element of Hezbollah, from commanders to members as well as our various capabilities, are in the service of the resistance, and we have nothing but the resistance as a priority."

A survey of European countries reveals an active pro-Iranian regime NGO network with links to Tehran which advances Khomeinist ideology and Iranian foreign policy imperatives in Europe, and also provides cover for Hezbollah’s ongoing activities on the continent.