The never-ending story: The AMIA Investigation

AMIA police manJuly is a time of year when Milanese office workers race to complete must-do tasks, as the humidity and balmy days beckon many to the sunnier and beachy south. As the city begins to relax, for those who remain, the ambiance is hard to resist, even for officialdom. Yet in July 1994, for the staff at Argentina’s Consulate-General, their Italian summer would be coldly disturbed by the arrival one morning of a nervous man who claimed to have important news to share.

Buenos Aires in July on the other hand is chilly, but just like any time of year, its cafes brim with patrons and the city´s well-dressed women entice spectators. In the west of the capital is the neighbourhood of Balvanera known for having a large Arab, Jewish and Armenian community. During the 1990s, the Jewish presence was notable, given the seven-storey building, which served as the community centre. The AMIA or Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina was built in 1945, and as an organisation provided religious and cultural services to BA´s Jewish community. Argentina´s Jewish population is one of the largest outside Israel, approximately 300,000 members and the seventh largest in the world. Well integrated, they have played an important role in all sectors of Argentinian society. On any day, the AMIA was a hive of activity, and not just for Jews since it operated an employment agency and held classes on health issues.

At fifty-three minutes past nine on the morning of July 18, 1994, as the workday started to fall into its predictable rhythm, a deafening explosion sliced and crumbled the façade of the AMIA building, bringing enormous piles of debris down on its occupants. At the same time people walking on the street outside were hit by flying fragments. The number of fatalities amounted to 67 in the building itself, while 18 were killed on the street below and in neighbouring buildings. The youngest victim was five, while the oldest was 73. Given the extent of the devastation, in some cases it would be weeks before rescue workers managed to recover all the bodies. Israel even provided special search dogs to help locate bodies.

In the days that followed, many Argentines questioned how it was possible for such a large-scale attack to occur. Eighty-five people had been killed and three hundred were left injured. To grasp the enormity of the tragedy, the AMIA bombing was the most devastating terrorist attack in Argentina’s history and outside Israel, it was worst against the Jewish community since the Second World War. With the horror that unfolded, it was natural to assume that those in charge would work doggedly to find the perpetrators. Yet, the quest to find justice in the months and years to come would be paved with frustration and disillusionment. Even to establish basic facts about the attack would prove onerous. Numerous theories and allegations would emerge about who was responsible and who played a critical role in orchestrating the attack. Twenty-six years after the bombing, not a single individual has been tried and convicted for their involvement.

Down South

Argentina is one of the most diverse countries in Latin America, with large groups of immigrants who emigrated from Europe and the Middle East during the late 19th and early 20th century. Yet for its size, Argentina has always been somewhat removed from the most turbulent elements of geopolitics. Apart from the Falklands invasion in the early 1980s, it hardly makes a shudder. It is not surprising that many Nazis saw it as an ideal location to escape the threat of imprisonment and execution. Long porous borders, an established cosmopolitan population and as mentioned, isolated from the centres of international power and influence, it is an attractive location for planning acts of sabotage or intrigue. Hostile elements could operate with minimal scrutiny.

Argentina’s Jews, as for many Jews living in the Diaspora, were not immune from the painful manifestations of anti-Semitism. Strands of which, according to John Simpson, existed among some members of Argentina’s armed forces and police. According to his 1985 book The Disappeared during the country’s Dirty War that lasted from 1976 until 1983, Jews who were detained were often subject to much harsher and humiliating treatment. Peronism as an ideology was never outwardly sympathetic to Jewish interests.

The anxiety produced in the initial aftermath of the bombing was all the more heightened, given that only two years before, the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires was the target of a similar attack, involving a Ford car in which 220 pounds of explosives and shrapnel were used. Twenty-three people were killed, including four Israeli diplomats and those responsible were never captured. As the dust settled and bulldozers began to shift the concrete of the AMIA, Argentinian intelligence, with the assistance of other foreign intelligence agencies, worked on pinpointing the likely suspects. From the outset, there were firm indicators, that the Lebanese-based Shia organisation, Hezbollah, carried out the attack, but a brazen attack of this magnitude, could not have occurred without extensive aid provided by Hezbollah’s chief sponsor Iran. And slowly but surely, evidence mounted of extensive Iranian involvement in the instigation, planning and execution of the bombing.

While the Iranians may not have known it, in the early 1990s, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, Mossad and its head Shabtai Shavit, did not consider South America as a region in which Israelis and Jews were at risk of attack. According to Dr. Tamir Libel, after the 1992 attack, voices began to emerge within the organisation that warned more attacks were to follow, but this was rejected by Shavit, who accepted that although threats existed, he did not deem it necessary to launch a large-scale operation across South America. This is despite warnings emanating from Hezbollah’s spiritual leader Sheikh Mohammed Fadlallah, who in May 1994, noted that: “If Israel has long arms, we do too, just look at what happened in Buenos Aires”. After the AMIA bombing, Mossad and Argentina’s Secretariat of Intelligence (SIDE) decided to cooperate in the investigation. While it seemed like an ideal pairing, in less than a year, efforts to collaborate fell apart. The Israelis were frustrated over the Argentinians lack of responsiveness.

Tehran’s Motive

There are several possible motives behind Iran’s decision to target the AMIA, of which Matthew Levitt from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has written about extensively. In 1992, Argentina took the decision to cease lending support to Iran’s nuclear programme, out of fear that Tehran sought to use it for purposes that were not simply limited to generating energy. Journalist Dexter Filkins says that the pressure to annul the agreement was exerted by the Americans. This is according to the country’s former foreign minister, Domingo Cavallo, who was informed that if Argentina wanted a good relationship with the United States, it would have to cease its budding nuclear friendship with the Iranians. Another possibility was that the bombings were carried out in response to the killing in an air strike of key Hezbollah operatives such as Abbas Moussawi, and in May 1994, the security chief of the Shi’ite group Amal, Mustafa Dirani was captured by the Israelis in the Beqaa Valley. At the time of Moussawi’s funeral, Sheikh Fadlallah warned that ‘Israel will not escape vengeance’.

The actual plan for the bombing was allegedly initiated in the eastern Iranian city of Mashad, and according to reports, it was decided on 14 August 1993 by members of the Committee for Special Operation, which included Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and chaired by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The plotters in Argentina were in contact with officials at the Iranian Embassy. According to the prosecutor Alberto Nisman, during the 1980s, the Iranians took advantage of the lax security oversight in many South American countries, such as Argentina, by hiring locals who gathered intelligence on their behalf. According to the Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, the explosives that were used were smuggled into Argentina inside an Iranian diplomatic pouch.

The other question that haunted investigators was identifying the actual bomber. The individual who both SIDE and FBI claim was responsible was Ibrahim Hussein Berro, a Lebanese, Hezbollah operative, who allegedly drove the vehicle to its final spot before taking the fatal action. Berro´s truck was packed with 600 lbs of explosives composed of ammonium nitrate. It was the same type of explosive that was used in the Israeli Embassy bombing. His body though was never found and the genetic profile that was gathered, according to the Times of Israel, did not belong to him. Moreover, Hezbollah claims that Berro died in southern Lebanon during an engagement with the Israelis.

Back to Milan

The man who arrived at the Argentine Consulate, claimed to be a Brazilian national, by the name of Wilson Dos Santos. According to journalist Sebastian Rotella, Dos Santos told the bemused officials that Iranians were planning to target a building that was under renovation in Buenos Aires. He claimed he had developed links with Iranians, while he used to operate out of the notorious tri-border region of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. Dos Santos had a chequered past, as a smuggler of contraband and immigration documents, but who would later become an informant for the police. His involvement with Argentina’s Iranian community grew, as a result of his encounter with Nasrim Mokhtari, who lived in Buenos Aires and who herself had several brushes with the law over charges of prostitution. According to Rotella, Mokhtari had close ties with people inside the Iranian Embassy. It was during a trip to Europe that Mokhtari allegedly told Dos Santos that she had been involved in the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and was helping to prepare another attack. While Dos Santos continued to stay on in Europe with Mokhtari, he eventually decided to travel to Brazil. He claims it was out of fear and according to Rotella, Dos Santos would reappear again with a new identity as a Sicilian with an Italian identity card. Only a week or two before the bombing, Dos Santos chose to visit the Argentine Consulate in Milan, as well as the Brazilian and Israeli, to warn officials of the impending attack. The Argentine consul Norma Fasano passed the news onto an intelligence official from SIDE, but it was not taken seriously. The tabloid newspaper Clarin reported that prior to the AMIA bombing, Dos Santos had even contacted the Argentine and Israeli consulates in Sao Paulo in February 1993 claiming to have information about the Israeli embassy bombing the previous March. His warnings even then were not taken seriously.

In late October 1994, during the investigation into AMIA, Dos Santos spoke with several Argentine federal officials about his relationship with Mokhtari and her Iranian connections. His story, as they say, checked-out, and Dos Santos was asked to testify in Buenos Aires in front of Judge Juan José Galeano. However, as Rotella writes, due to either stress or anxiety, Dos Santos later decided to retract his story. He claimed it was all made up and the timing of his visits to the consulates was purely coincidental. As a result of his false testimony, he was charged and sentenced to serve a prison term. He later fled the country and eventually settled in Europe. Nevertheless, the charges against him remained in place, and a warrant for his arrest was issued by the federal judge Claudio Bonadio. In December 2000, Dos Santos, was arrested in Switzerland at the request of Interpol and was sent back to Argentina. His former girlfriend Mokhtari had been living in France when in 1998, during a stopover at Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires, she was arrested for her alleged involvement in the bombings.  However, due in part to the decision of Dos Santos to retract his statement, Mokhtari was later acquitted in 1999 due to a lack of evidence. For prosecutors, the testimony of Dos Santos, which on the surface seemed promising, never amounted to identifying key persons of interest.

Hard to Crack

In the ten years that elapsed after the bombing, the Argentine justice system failed to yield any useful results. This was due in part to the revelations that Judge Galeano had arranged for payments to be made to elicit information from suspects. In 1997 a video emerged of Carlos Telleldín, who in 1994 ran a second-hand car company and is believed to have sold the truck that was used in the bombing. In the video, it appeared that Galeano was willing to pay Telleldín to divulge information for a fee of 400,000 USD to falsely accuse four Buenos Aires policemen of playing a role in the bombing. Alarmingly, the funding was granted by SIDE and it appeared that Galeano was determined to find guilty parties who could be charged. He led the investigation until December 2003, but over the years, his work was frequently criticized. For instance, key witnesses were not called to testify, while others were rejected, even though they tried to share their stories with the police. An observer of the trial noted that: “Argentina is a modern country, but there is no trust in the legal system, no faith that the system can solve problems”. According to the Jerusalem Post, prosecutors were shocked to discover that crucial records related to the bombing were destroyed ten years after the attack.

Crucially Argentina´s president at the time of the bombing, Carlos Menem, would later face allegations that he was part of a cover-up to scupper the chances of a full and transparent investigation from taking place. An Iranian intelligence officer, who later defected, Abolghassem Mesbahi claims Menem was paid 10 million USD to keep Iran’s involvement out of the picture. However, a 2009 a New York Times article, lent doubt to the veracity of Mesbahi’s information. But suspicions about Menem have never abated. In 2015, he along with 13 other individuals, were accused of helping to derail the investigation. This included the accusation that he asked Judge Galeano to stop looking into the role played by a number of Syrians who were believed to have connections with the attack. This included Alberto Kanoore Edul, who was implicated as being a contact of Mohsen Rabbani, the cultural attaché at the Iranian Embassy. Edul, along with several businessmen, are alleged to have purchased chemical components used to produce the bomb. It became known as the Syrian connection, as Menem who is of Syrian-descent, had family connections with Edul. Menem would later be acquitted of any involvement, but others, such as Galeano were not so lucky. In early 2019, he was imprisoned for six years, but denied the accusations that he had acted on Menem’s orders. Others, such as Hugo Anzorreguy, the former head of SIDE, were also sentenced to four and half years for his role in facilitating the payment to Telleldín. Others who have faced scrutiny include Juan Carlos Anchezar, who was the former deputy secretary of intelligence and Jorge Palacios who formally headed the federal police’s anti-terror unit. Both were accused of obstruction in the case.

One man comes

In 2004, as Argentina sought a way out of its own economic problems, its new president, Nestor Kirchner decided to inject fresh vigour into the AMIA investigation, whose failings he called a “national disgrace”. He put Alberto Nisman in charge of an investigative team. Nisman´s efforts to uncover the truth about those responsible for the bombing would help bring scrutiny to the corruption within both the Argentine government and its judicial system. Nisman was a workaholic, yet he also enjoyed the publicity that came from his appointed role. He was known for his stylish clothes and enjoyed dining at swanky restaurants. For his dedication, he received numerous death threats and was accused of working on behalf of foreign interests. He paid special attention to the involvement of the Iranians and believed that Argentina’s decision to end its nuclear cooperation was crucial in explaining the reason for the attack. As part of his investigation, he spent considerable time in the US meeting with intelligence officials and liaised with Mossad’s former chief Meir Dagan.

Nisman’s tireless efforts started to produce results. In March 2007, Interpol issued a series of Red Notices or international arrest warrants, calling for the arrest of six individuals connected with the attack. They included: Ali Fallahijan, who was Iran’s minister of intelligence and security. Ahmad Vahidi, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) Qods force, who later became minister of defence. The head of the IRGC, Moshen Rezai, the Iranian diplomat Ahmad Reza Asghari, Hezbollah’s security chief Imad Fayez Mughniyeh (who later died in 2008) and Mohsen Rabbani. As a resident of Buenos Aires, Rabbani was considered the most culpable on-the-ground figure. He had moved to Argentina in 1983 and found local Shia Muslims who were prepared to conduct fieldwork. Matthew Levitt notes that Argentina’s intelligence services were aware of Rabbani visiting car dealerships in Buenos Aires to purchase a Renault Trafic van, which was used in the attack. He first came onto their radar screen after the 1992 Israeli Embassy bombing. His local knowledge is thought to have been critical in the decision to attack the AMIA. He later became the cultural attaché in the Iranian Embassy and who was also a sheikh at the city’s At-Tauhid Mosque. Nisman believed that for the Iranians, Rabbani was critical in Latin America as a point man for creating a network of Islamic radicals. It is also reported that Rabbani received diplomatic immunity six months prior to the bombing. One actor in the affair, who Nisman identified as fundamental to the execution of the attack was Samuel Salman El Reda. He was born in Lebanon but moved to South America in the 1980s. He was closely tied to Rabbani and is believed to have handled the logistics on the ground regarding accommodation, the arrival and departure of the operatives. El Reda raised concerns as he was known for being involved with radical politics and connections to Hezbollah. His ties were regarded as sufficient enough for Nisman to ask Judge Rodolfo Canicola Corral to arrest him. Interpol issued a Red Notice for his arrest in 2009 and last year the US State Department issued a reward of seven million USD for information leading to his arrest.

In December 2007, Nestor Kirchner stepped aside allowing his wife Cristina Fernández to run as a presidential candidate. By this time, at least 50 people were working on the AMIA case. Nisman had been working on two lines of enquiry: the first to understand who was responsible for the bombing and the second to understand the failings of previous investigations and those responsible. He submitted indictments against individuals such as Galeano and Anzorreguy. However, in a reversal to her husband’s position, the government changed its tune and in 2013 it was announced that a joint Iranian-Argentine inquiry would look into the AMIA bombing case. She wanted to form a truth and reconciliation commission of sorts, consisting of five independent judges, yet whose findings would not be binding. The country’s Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman would negotiate with his counterpart Ali Akhar Salehi. This seemed like a ludicrous suggestion and it immediately raised suspicions as to what could be behind it. The answer soon became obvious: Argentina needed a willing importer for its wheat and Iran could provide relatively cheap fuel in return. Yet allowing the Iranians to be part of the investigation was unthinkable given the amount of evidence linking the Iranian government to the attack. Even the head of Interpol, Ronald Noble believed that the government had sought to cover up their responsibilities. The New York Times even reported that Fernández, along with Timerman were alleged to have made an agreement with the Iranians, whereby immunity would be granted to those Iranian individuals connected with the attack. Nisman wanted to highlight the extent of the government’s perfidy by calling for the freezing of Fernández’s assets. She or at least her government had tried to hamper Nisman’s work by preventing him from travelling to Washington DC in 2013 to present his findings on Iran’s spy network in Latin America. To add insult to injury, his lead investigator, Antonio Stiuso, a former director of operations at SIDE and whom Nisman worked with professionally for ten years was dismissed. He later fled to the United States after he made accusations against Fernández and Timerman for stalling the investigation and giving in to Iranian pressure. Nevertheless, Nisman was determined to press on, despite the possibility of Iranian and Argentinian interference.

Internationally speaking Nisman’s crusade had been a relatively quiet affair, until news broke on 18 January 2015, that the 51-year-old had been found dead lying against a bathroom door, with the casing of a 22-caliber bullet beside him. It was widely reported that Nisman intended to accuse Cristina Fernández of wanting to bury the AMIA case and believed that her actions were tantamount to treason. A charge he was eager to highlight to the public and was just a day away from presenting damaging information to the National Congress.  It is alleged that when police found Nisman’s lifeless body, they also found a legal document, penned by him, which would have called for the arrest of Fernández. In the immediate aftermath of his death, news circulated that Nisman committed suicide. A story that obviously failed to gain traction given that he had been the recipient of numerous death threats and required the company of bodyguards. Various accounts and details emerged in the press that suggested foul play was involved. According to the findings of a report issued by Nisman’s ex-wife, Sandra Arroyo Salgado who is federal judge, no gunpowder was found on Nisman’s hands and his body had been moved to the bathroom after he was shot.

In August 2017, forensic investigators concluded that Alberto Nisman had been murdered. Unfortunately, the investigation into his death was hampered by reports that the scene of his death was badly contaminated. The Guardian reported in November 2017 that Nisman’s phone and computer had been tampered with, and on the day of his death, security cameras at his apartment complex had not been working. According to the Gendarmería Nacional, they believe that Nisman was first beaten up, drugged and then shot execution style. A name which frequently arose in relation to the investigation was Diego Lagomarsino, who worked for Nisman as an IT assistant. He was reportedly the last person in Nisman’s apartment before his death, but more alarmingly, the bullet that killed the prosecutor had come from Lagomarsino’s gun. In his defence, Lagomarsino says that Nisman had borrowed his gun, as he feared for his safety. According to the prosecutor Jorge Taiano, a number of WhatsApp messages were exchanged between Nisman and Lagomarsino, but were deleted the morning after Nisman’s death. Despite protests, and his personal belief that his former employer committed suicide, Lagomarsino has been charged as an accomplice in his death. At the time of writing, he is due to stand trial. The strange circumstances of Nisman’s death continue to be an enormous source of speculation, but for the victims’ families, it has been significant blow in their bid to attain justice.

In December 2015, Mauricio Macri was elected president, defeating his Peronist rival Daniel Scioli, who was endorsed by Fernández. And in a reversal to his predecessor, in 2016 he cancelled the memorandum of understanding agreed between Iran and Argentina. He appeared determined to know what happened to Nisman, and more broadly, finally bring to justice those responsible for the bombing. In late 2017 Judge Claudio Bonadio was put in charge of investigating Nisman’s allegations concerning the former government. Bonadio, with the same perseverance shown by Nisman, was determined to build a case against the Argentine officials who had given approval for the MOU with Iran. In 2017, he charged Fernández and some of her aides with treason and obstruction of justice. He even requested that the Senate strip Fernández of her parliamentary immunity and call for her arrest for the alleged cover up of Iranian citizens involved in the AMIA bombing. Perhaps understandably, Fernández was convinced that the judge had a vendetta against her. Fortunately for her, political events were to shift in her favour, as in December 2019, Alberto Fernandez, was elected president and Cristina Fernández would serve as vice-president. It should be noted that in the summer before the election, Argentina took the extraordinary measure to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, the first of any Latin American country. Alberto Fernandez has reaffirmed his government’s commitment to learning the truth about the AMIA, but admits he doubts Nisman was murdered and rejects the claim that his vice president was involved in a cover-up.

In early February 2020, after a number of surgeries Judge Bonadio succumbed to a brain tumor. As of February 2020, his cases are now in the hands of Judge Sebastián Casanello, who is working on a temporary basis. It is unclear who will act as a permanent replacement.

Where to go from here?

Twenty-six years have past since the awful attack took place, and while answers remain elusive, the victims’ families have been offered little opportunity to put the past behind. Unfortunately, individuals able to weather the storm of Argentina’s political forces, and who are willing to carry out a transparent investigation are few on the ground. There are some who believe like the disgraced Judge Galeano that the investigation was a “victim of the internal struggles of the intelligence services”. However, interest in the case has been given a boost with the recent release of a Netflix series into the investigation and the death of Nisman. Something which is surely needed, as without clear answers, the investigation of AMIA is turning into a never-ending saga for all those involved. As up to now, the investigation into the circumstances of his death has been slow, with the added complication that even his ex-wife has decided to step away from being a plaintiff in order to protect her family. During one of the many memorials that have taken place over the years to remember the victims of the bombing, the former president of the AMIA, Mr. Agustin Zbar spoke about the impact of the attack and the feeling of impunity which it engendered: “Impunity, destroys confidence in the justice system, aggravates the damage to victims and opens the way for it to be committed again”.  We can only hope not.










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