Thu. Oct 29th, 2020
France, Spain deny US claim that Hezbollah is storing explosives in Europe

European countries have denied assertions by a top US official that Lebanon’s Hezbollah has moved and stored bomb-making material throughout Europe to “conduct major terror attacks whenever its masters in Tehran deem it necessary”.

Speaking in his official capacity to the American Jewish Committee (AJC) on 17 September, US State Department counter-terrorism coordinator Nathan Sales said he “can reveal” that Hezbollah has moved caches of ammonium nitrate through many European states, including Greece, Italy, Belgium, France, Spain and Switzerland. 

Sales’s allegations about Hezbollah-linked explosives in Europe came weeks after an enormous explosion caused by tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at the Beirut port that killed more than 200 people and injured thousands.

Ammonium nitrate is a highly explosive substance often used in fertilisers. Sales said that the Lebanese group has used first aid kits with cold packs that contain the chemical compound to move it throughout the continent. 

Since he delivered his remarks, France and Spain have challenged Sales’s account, and according to the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, an inquiry by law enforcement agencies in Athens failed to substantiate the US official’s claims.

‘No tangible information’

“The Spanish authorities have no evidence to suggest that Hezbollah’s armed wing has introduced or stored chemicals in Spain for the manufacture of explosives,” Spain’s embassy in Washington told Middle East Eye in an email earlier this week. 

The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs also cast doubt on the American assertion. 

“To our knowledge, there is currently no tangible information that would allow us to confirm such an allegation with respect to France,” a spokesperson for the ministry said in a statement

“Any illegal activity committed by a foreign organization on our soil would be met with the harshest possible sanctions by French authorities.”

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Similarly, Kathimerini reported that an investigation involving Greek police and intelligence services “has not turned up evidence of Greek authorities having handled or intercepted information suggesting that the militant group may be using this country to store such material”.

The Athens-based newspaper cited unidentified sources as saying that the US official’s remarks were aimed at pressuring European countries to blacklist Hezbollah as a terror group.

The Swiss embassy in Washington refused to confirm or deny Sales’s comments against Hezbollah, saying that the country’s Foreign Ministry “does not comment on allegations published in the media”.

During his virtual appearance at the AJC, Sales urged Europe to impose a blanket ban on the Lebanese group. The European Union designated Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organisation in 2013, but it does allow for political activities by the Iran-backed organisation.

Britain and Germany outlawed Hezbollah in 2019 and 2020 respectively. Last week, Sales lauded the decisions of both countries and called on the rest of Europe to follow suit, rejecting the distinction between Hezbollah’s political and military branches. 

“Hezbollah represents a clear and present danger to the US today,” Sales said. 

Maximum pressure campaign

Joe Macaron, a fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, said the US official’s claims are part of Washington’s effort to push Europe to adopt a more aggressive stance against the Lebanese group.

“This approach by the Trump administration comes as France tries to mitigate tensions between the US and Iran in Lebanon and beyond,” Macaron told MEE.

“It is obvious that the US maximum pressure on Iran is in full-court press mode to put Tehran on the defensive as the US-sponsored Arab-Israeli normalisation deals take effect, and they are timely, just weeks ahead of the US elections. 

“The message is to France as much as it is to Iran that a deal between Washington and Tehran before the US elections is not in Trump’s electoral interests and maximum pressure will continue until then.”

‘Spanish authorities have no evidence to suggest that Hezbollah’s armed wing has introduced or stored chemicals in Spain for the manufacture of explosives’

– Spain’s embassy in Washington

US President Donald Trump has ruled out talks with Iran before the elections in November as his administration has imposed additional sanctions on the Islamic Republic as part of what it calls snapback measures, which Washington’s European allies have rejected.

The US administration has also been piling sanctions on Hezbollah itself, blacklisting Lebanese companies and politicians linked to the group.

There has been no credible evidence linking Hezbollah to the port explosion. The tonnes of the dangerous chemical substance held in the port came from a Russian-owned, Moldovan-flagged ship that was headed to Mozambique before it was abandoned in Lebanon in 2013. 

It sat at the port for years under the supervision of successive Lebanese governments in which both Hezbollah and its Western-backed rivals were represented. 

On Wednesday, the US State Department backed Sales’s remarks, noting previous plots attributed to the Lebanese group in Europe, including the 2015 sentencing of a Hezbollah operative in Cyprus in connection with stockpiles of bomb-making chemicals.

“The State Department stands by the new information unveiled by Ambassador Sales during the AJC event on Hezbollah’s caching of ammonium nitrate in Europe,” a State Department spokesperson told MEE.

“Hezbollah’s involvement in terrorist plotting and other activities in Europe in recent years is well documented, including its use of ammonium nitrate to fuel explosive devices.”

Previous allegations

This is not the first time the Iran-backed group has been accused of storing explosives in Europe. Last year, the UK’s Daily Telegraph reported that in 2015, British authorities found a warehouse in London filled with explosives linked to Hezbollah.

The British government has not corroborated that report, and no arrests linked to the alleged incident have been made public. Still, the State Department cited the incident in its statement to MEE on Wednesday.

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In May, Israeli media outlets reported that a Mossad tip about large amounts of Hezbollah-linked ammonium nitrate in Germany is what led to Berlin’s move to ban the Lebanese group. 

Last week, during the same AJC virtual event, German State Secretary Hans-Georg Engelke confirmed that Berlin had found bomb-making material linked to Hezbollah in the southern part of the country. “It was an amount that really worried us,” he said.

Hezbollah, which has deep political, financial and theological ties to Iran, says its main focus is “resistance” against Israel in Lebanon, although it has been involved in the civil war in Syria and participated in an advisory capacity in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq. 

Detractors say the group has a global network, including in South America, Europe and the Arabian Peninsula. 

In 2013, Bulgarian authorities accused Hezbollah of being behind a bomb attack that targeted a bus of Israeli tourists, killing six people. 

The Lebanese group has denied involvement in the incident.

– This article has been updated to include a response by the US State Department.

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