Europe turning blind eye to Hamas and Hezbollah networks in its territory, experts say

Analysts say terror groups operate largely unchecked, running charities, lobbying public opinion and recruiting supporters — and the legal means to stop them are scant

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a debate on the attacks by Hamas against Israel and the humanitarian situation in Gaza, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on October 18, 2023. (Frederick Florin/AFP)
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a debate on the attacks by Hamas against Israel and the humanitarian situation in Gaza, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on October 18, 2023. (Frederick Florin/AFP)

A stash of weapons was found hidden under a pine tree in southern Bulgaria last week. The arms were linked to four suspected Hamas members arrested in Germany and the Netherlands in December on suspicion of preparing an attack against Jewish targets in Europe, according to the German magazine Der Spiegel.

During the same month, seven people with links to Hamas were arrested in Denmark on similar charges.

The arrests shone a light on the oft-overlooked activities of anti-Israeli jihadi terror groups in Europe and raised questions about their networks of influence and operations in the West.

“Hamas has been in Europe for about 30 years. It’s an open secret,” said Lorenzo Vidino, director of the program on extremism at George Washington University. “But investigations have been, for the most part, unsuccessful.”

The prosecution of top Hamas figures has been a “complete disaster,” the researcher commented, as European countries have preferred to allocate their limited resources to what they perceive to be more direct security threats.

Israeli intelligence veteran Danny Citrowicz made similar observations with regard to Hezbollah, warning against underestimating the expanding network of the Lebanese Shiite terror group on European soil.

“In Europe, the main terror threats are considered to be Sunni groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. You don’t really see them acting against Shiite radicalism,” said Citrowicz, a Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. “They think they have bigger fish to fry.”

A policeman stands guard on January 21, 2015, in front of the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket where jihadist gunman Amedy Coulibaly killed four Jewish men on January 9, 2015 in Paris. (AFP/Eric Feferberg)

‘Visible’ and ‘less visible’ operations

Vidino is an expert on the European and North American networks of the Muslim Brotherhood, the tentacular trans-national Islamist movement out of which Hamas was born.

Concerning its activities in Europe, Hamas follows the Brotherhood’s model, Vidino explained, which is based on an “outer” and an “inner circle.”

“The outer circle is composed of a vast network of ‘fellow travelers’ who support the cause,” he said, referring to people who are ideologically sympathetic to Hamas’s agenda, including local activists, intellectuals and politicians.

“While the ‘inner circle,’ very secretive, tight and elitist, is made up of just a couple of dozen Palestinians with long-standing family connections to Hamas,” he added. “These are very charismatic individuals that have long operated in these countries, who are well set and most of the time obtain political asylum.”

Hamas’s duplicity is also evident in the type of activities it runs. There is a “visible” public diplomacy outreach, and a “less visible,” illicit side, which includes fundraising for its terror operations, conducted mostly under the cover of charitable organizations. Vidino co-published a comprehensive report in December on the subject, titled “Tackling Hamas funding in the West.”

Concerningly, the dark side of Hamas’s illicit activity in Europe of late also appears to include the planning of attacks against Jewish and Israeli targets, as the December arrests revealed.

File: Pro-Palestinian activists and supporters in London let off smoke flares, wave flags and carry placards during a demonstration against Israel amid fighting between the Jewish state and Palestinian terrorists in Gaza, on May 15, 2021. (Tolga Akmen/AFP)

The propaganda arm

The legal, more visible side of Hamas’s presence is the staging of public events, annual gatherings and street protests, which have dramatically increased in frequency and intensity since October 7, Vidino said.

“Of course, they don’t call themselves Hamas,” he added, noting that the terror group has been outlawed throughout the European Union. “They will have names like Conference of Palestinians Abroad, Palestinians in (country name), Palestinian Students Abroad, and so on.”

“But when you dig a bit, you find out who the people are behind these associations, and what their connections are back home [in the Palestinian territories]. It’s always the same cluster of 20-25 people. Their propaganda, their social media patterns, everything is Hamas. And it’s very public and visible,” said Vidino.

“This is a typical Muslim Brotherhood tactic,” he added. “They come up with a million different names for their organizations, for two reasons: Firstly, they want to give the impression that it’s a broad movement, so that when they organize a public event, there will be 50 participating organizations, or if they publish a public letter, there will be 50 signatory groups. Secondly, if one of these groups is taken down by law enforcement, well, there’s all the other ones.”

These “visible” propaganda arms target both the local Muslim communities in European countries to mobilize their support but also to lobby with European civil society and politicians and engage with local public opinion by writing op-eds in newspapers, holding interfaith dialog and so on.

A suspicious new NGO in Belgium

The main hubs of Hamas presence in Europe are in the continent’s west, according to Vidino, in large countries like the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, as well as small ones like the Netherlands, Austria and Belgium.

Belgium in particular has long been known to be a hotbed for jihadi terror in Europe.

Belgium MP Michael Freilich is the only Jewish member in the Belgian federal Parliament. In an interview with The Times of Israel, he recalled that in January, he submitted a parliamentary inquiry to Belgian Justice Minister Paul Van Tigchelt about a recently established lobbying group in Brussels named EUPAC — European Palestinian Council for Political Relations.

The group lists among its Board of Directors Majed Al-Zeer, a man accused by German authorities of being the “Hamas representative in Germany” and a key liaison in Europe, according to Der Spiegel.

Majed Al-Zeer. (YouTube screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Al-Zeer is known to have been close to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who once publicly congratulated him on acquiring consultative status at the United Nations for an NGO Al-Zeer led at the time, the London-based Palestinian Return Center (PRC). PRC denied claims of affiliation with Hamas. Al-Zeer and Haniyeh also appear in an undated picture standing beside each other at an event.

After living in the UK and Germany, Al-Zeer was involved in the establishment of EUPAC in Brussels in May 2022. The NGO aims to “raise awareness” for the Palestinian cause with “actors in the European arena” through conferences, seminars, campaigns and media interventions, according to its website.

In response to MP Freilich’s inquiry on the activities on Belgian soil of an individual considered by German authorities to be a key Hamas member, the Belgian Justice Ministry refused to disclose whether there was an open investigation, but acknowledged, to Freilich’s dismay, that Belgian security services “know that Hamas is active in Belgium through different associations, focused on lobbying and fundraising.”

File: Police attend the scene of a stabbing attack in Brussels, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022. (AP/Sylvain Plazy)

“The lobbying activities are aimed at preserving the image of Hamas, often under the guise of support for the Palestinian cause. No extremist message coming from organizations linked to Hamas has so far been detected in Belgium,” the Justice Ministry said in its response.

Freilich was puzzled by his government’s laissez-faire approach toward the terror group.

“Why would you admit [that Hamas is active in the country], and then say, well, we’re allowing them to operate, because in Belgium they are not doing anything extreme? You just said they are fundraising, and that is supposed to be illegal for such an organization. It doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.

File: Belgian MP Michael Freilich visiting Jerusalem, February 2020. (Courtesy)

Difficult to prosecute

Vidino said that law enforcement authorities in European countries have long known who these core Hamas members in Europe are, but appear to be unable or unwilling to invest the necessary resources to prosecute them.

“We looked at investigations conducted against Hamas’s funding networks in the West over the last 25-30 years, and we found that it’s basically been a complete disaster. Investigations have been, for the most part, unsuccessful,” he said.

“Some of these key individuals have been investigated. At times, they get arrested, they get charged, but then it never sticks – with a few exceptions,” Vidino said, citing the arrest of a Hamas member and his daughter in the Netherlands last June on suspicion of sending 5 million euros ($5.4 million) to the terror group.

“The main issue is that Hamas has not really been a priority for European law enforcement. Security forces have limited resources. A country like Belgium would rather invest its resources in tracking down ISIS members, who pose a more direct security threat,” he added. (Belgium has been the largest source of Islamic State fighters per capita in Europe.)

In addition, opening legal procedures against suspected Hamas leaders abroad can have unpleasant ramifications.

“They will accuse you of Islamophobia and launch campaigns, and they have their political backers, their ‘fellow travelers’ and ‘useful idiots,’” Vidino said, citing as an example former British Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, who famously referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends.”

File: Former Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn (C) joins protesters with placards and flags taking part in the ‘National March For Palestine’ in central London on November 11, 2023. (Henry Nicholls/AFP)

Hamas is very skilled at forging opportunistic alliances with whoever will advance its cause, the researcher added.

“They have people they work with and with different degrees of intensity. They will work with other Islamists when necessary. But when they organize events — protests in the streets or even fundraising — they have no problem doing them with leftists because they obviously bring out big numbers.”

Legal obstacles in halting money

While the approach of European security and intelligence services vis-à-vis Hamas may be changing after October 7 given the threat of attacks on European soil, there are still obstacles when it comes to dismantling networks.

“A lot of their activities are in the public domain. Protests, social media campaigns, Facebook pages, all of this mobilization is not illegal, it’s freedom of speech,” Vidino said.

“Even when it comes to fundraising, a lot of the legal cases in the past fell through because the route the money follows is hard to prove,” he added. “Firstly, in many cases the money is sent in cash, so good luck tracing that. In many cases, the funds are sent to welfare organizations, such as schools, hospitals, orphanages, zakat [Islamic charity] committees, which are controlled by Hamas, but it’s complicated to prove.

“[European] cooperation with Israel has gotten much better, but at the end of the day, the devil is in the details,” he said. “You need to have evidence that you can admit in court, prove the chain of custody. If the Israelis come up with some papers they found in a raid of a mosque in Gaza, a defense lawyer in a Swedish court can argue that Israel has fabricated the evidence.”

Illustrative: Cash confiscated from an East Jerusalem charity, with alleged ties to Hamas, in February 2022. (Israel Police)

Hezbollah’s diffused presence

Europe also represents fertile ground for the operations of the Lebanese Iran-sponsored terror group Hezbollah, particularly when it comes to collecting financial resources.

“Hezbollah as an organization has been growing, it has salaries to pay, stipends for the families and the widows of its fighters, and so on. There is a cap to how much aid it can get from Iran, so it does a lot of its fundraising abroad — including in Europe,” said Danny Citrinowicz, an expert on the Lebanese terror group.

According to a 2018 State Department assessment, Iran provides Hezbollah at least $700 million a year. However, the Iranian economy is in dire straits, hit by sanctions and dependent on fluctuating gas and oil prices. To gain a stable flow of cash independent from Tehran, Hezbollah has built a stunningly sophisticated global network of drug trafficking and money laundering.

This handout picture provided by Hezbollah’s media office on February 10, 2024 shows Lebanese Shiite terror group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian at an undisclosed location in Lebanon. (Hezbollah’s Media Office/AFP)

In a 2017 statement in the House of Representatives quoted by the Washington Institute, a DEA Special Agent described one of these networks as follows: “Cocaine was shipped from South America to Africa; sold in Africa, Europe and the Middle East; the cash was then brought to Beirut and placed in money exchange houses; then, through the Lebanese Canadian Bank, the money was sent to buy used cars from companies in the US; the cars were sent to Africa for resale; much of those profits, according to officials, went to Hezbollah.”

Europe serves as a major hub of fundraising for the Lebanese group, not only for its illicit activities but also through charities acting as front organizations, similar to Hamas. For instance, in 2014, Germany outlawed an NGO named “Lebanon Orphan Children Project” that collected 3.3 million euros ($3.5 million) in donations allegedly destined to Lebanese children, after it uncovered ties to the terror group.

Police officers carry boxes of evidence out of the Al-Irschad Mosque in Berlin during a raid on April 30, 2020, as dozens of police and special forces stormed mosques and associations in Germany linked to Hezbollah. (Odd Andersen/AFP)

A changing modus operandi

Hezbollah has carried out terror activities in Europe in the past. In 2012, a French-Lebanese Hezbollah member conducted an attack against Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, in which six were killed. In 2015, a Hezbollah member was found with eight tons of bomb-making materials in his home in Cyprus, destined for use in terror attacks against Israeli targets on the island.

But today, the modus operandi has changed, and the terror group prefers to remain under the radar. Consequently, its European presence has become much more insidious.

The movement has infiltrated Shiite congregations and indoctrinated mosque-goers to its ideology, intending to create a potential pool of tens of thousands of supporters that it can use for its purposes, Citrinowicz said.

The aim of proselytizing Shiite Europeans — hailing mainly from Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan — is not to “give them the gun and go shoot at some Israeli.”

Rather, the indoctrination aims to create “platforms” of supporters that can be activated when necessary, for instance, to transfer cash to the Middle East through couriers, or rent safe houses, cars or apartments for Hezbollah members arriving from Lebanon, Citrinowicz explained. Some of these proselytes also participate in the terror group’s economic operations.

“Hezbollah and Iran don’t use their own people for this type of activity. When they need to recruit so-called ‘external terror capabilities,’ they will turn to their mosques or religious centers,” Citrinowicz said.

Police officers search the ‘Blue Mosque’ housing the Islamic Centre of Hamburg, during raids across Germany over suspected links to the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group in Hamburg, northern Germany on November 16, 2023. (Axel Heimken/AFP)

Security forces in some countries are beginning to wake up to the threat. In November, German police launched a vast country-wide operation against Shiite jihadis, raiding 54 sites as part of an investigation into a Hamburg Islamic center with alleged links to Iran and Hezbollah.

However, the Shiite terror threat is still largely underestimated in Europe, Citrinowicz argued, as law enforcement focuses on Sunni jihadi groups like ISIS, which unlike Hezbollah actively recruits fighters on European soil.

Furthermore, while the military wing of Hezbollah is outlawed throughout the EU, its political arm is still legal in various countries such as France, which aims thus to retain diplomatic leverage with its former Middle East protectorate Lebanon.

“But we know that there is no difference between the military wing and the political wing,” Citrinowicz said. “It’s only an artificial distinction.”

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