LIMASSOL, Cyprus: A man on trial for allegedly plotting attacks on Israelis in Cyprus described himself Thursday as a loyal Hezbollah member doing its bidding in Europe, but vehemently denied being part of a group preparing an attack.
The trial of Hossam Taleb Yaacoub, a 24-year-old Swedish-Lebanese citizen, is of particular interest because he was arrested last July, days before a July 18 bus bombing in Bulgaria killed five Israeli tourists and the Bulgarian driver. Bulgarian authorities have recently accused Hezbollah of being behind that bombing.
Cypriot authorities have been reluctant to draw a connection between the alleged Cyprus plot against Israelis and the attack in Bulgaria, but the trial in Limassol has ratcheted up concerns about Hezbollah’s activities in Europe.
The United States has declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization, but the 27-nation European Union, of which Cyprus is a member, has not. That could shift if Hezbollah was shown to be behind attacks on Israelis in EU nations.
Yaacoub told the court under cross-examination Thursday that his Hezbollah handler in Lebanon told him to record the arrival times of Flight IZ167 from Israel on July 3 and July 7 last year. He said he only knows his handler as “Ayman,” and never saw his face because Ayman always wore a mask.
The Mediterranean island of Cyprus is a popular vacation destination for Israelis, especially those seeking civil marriages.
Yaacoub also used a code to jot down in a red notebook the license plate numbers of two buses transporting passengers from the Israeli flight.
The plate numbers – LAA 505 and KWK 663 – were deciphered using the words “Kawasaky” and “Laamborghini” as well as a number scribbled in the back of his notebook.
Yaacoub said he would have delivered the information back to Ayman in Lebanon but he was arrested. He insisted, however, that he didn’t know what the information was going to be used for and was not part of a group planning an attack.
“I didn’t come here to commit a criminal act or anything else wrong,” Yaacoub, speaking in Arabic, said through an interpreter. “I’m not a member of a criminal group and I never conspired to commit a crime in my life ... I was asked to bring information about the flight, but I don’t know what that would be used for.”
Yaacoub has pleaded not guilty to eight charges including conspiracy, consent to commit a criminal offense and participation in a criminal organization. He initially faced 17 terrorism and terrorism-related charges, according to police, but prosecutors dropped any reference to terrorism in the new charges without an explanation.
Prosecutors say Yaacoub knowingly conspired with others to “abduct a person for the purpose of subjecting him to harm or attacking him to cause grievous bodily harm” and was prepared to carry out missions around the world against Israelis on Hezbollah’s orders.
Yaacoub told the court that he was assigned unspecified “missions” for Hezbollah to Turkey in 2008 and the Netherlands and France in 2011. An official with knowledge of the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity because the case was ongoing said Yaacoub delivered envelopes to the countries and wore specific clothing so he could be identified by a contact.
Yaacoub said in court he earns his living as a businessman, and that he traveled to Cyprus to purchase locally made juice but also to collect the information that Hezbollah wanted.
He admitted to being on Hezbollah’s payroll and receiving a monthly salary of $600. But he defended the group as a “multifaceted party” that has social, political and military wings and engages in charity work.