The Men Responsible for the AMIA Bombing Are Known—and Still at Large https://mosaicmagazine.com/response/jewish-world/2019/08/the-men-responsible-for-the-amia-bombing-are-known-and-still-at-large/

Occupying positions from the highest rungs of the Iranian government to agents and operatives in the field, the terrorists have been rewarded, not punished.

August 12, 2019 | Matthew Levitt
This is a response to The Shameful Cover-Up of the Worst Attack on Diaspora Jews Since the Holocaust, originally published in Mosaic in August 2019

An AMIA memorial in July 2019 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Carol Smiljan/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

In his strongly worded essay for Mosaic, Avi Weiss meticulously documents the painful history of the cover-up of the devastating July 1994 bombing of the AMIA building in Buenos Aires—“the largest single attack,” as he puts it, “against a Jewish community in the Diaspora since the Holocaust,” leaving 85 dead and hundreds wounded.

The cover-up was not entirely successful. Despite the dysfunction of the early Argentinean investigation into the bombing, the eventual removal of corrupt politicians and judges did allow a new team of prosecutors to produce, against all odds, a definitive accounting of the plot and its perpetrators. Its conclusion was crystal-clear:

The decision to carry out the AMIA attack was made, and the attack was orchestrated, by the highest officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran at the time, and . . . these officials instructed Lebanese Hizballah—a group that has historically been subordinated to the economic and political interests of the Tehran regime—to carry out the attack.

But that still leaves much undone. Despite the publication of three detailed reports on the AMIA bombing itself, on the role of Hizballah, and on Iranian agents in Argentina, not one of the key suspects has been apprehended, let alone tried or convicted. To the contrary: the failure to hold Iran or Hizballah accountable for the bombing has had adverse real-life repercussions for Argentinean politics and society—not to mention the country’s Jewish community. At the same time, it has positively reinforced and emboldened the leaders of Iran and Hizballah.

Indeed, several individuals who were personally involved in the AMIA bombing have since been promoted through the ranks to senior positions within the Iranian government or Hizballah. This includes not only senior Iranian officials but also less known but more operationally significant Iranian and Hizballah agents.

In sum, those who executed the AMIA bombing 25 years ago continue to oversee international terrorist operations today. In what follows, I’ll cite chapter and verse, beginning with the senior Iranian officials indicted by Argentina, several of whom are also subjects of Interpol Red Notice warrants and whose cases are relatively well known.

 

One of these senior officials is Ali Akbar Velayati, who was Iran’s foreign minister during the AMIA bombing and would be charged by Argentine prosecutors with double aggravated homicide as an “ideological mastermind behind the attack.” Still today a “fixture of Iran’s post-revolutionary politics,” Velayati has served as head of Iran’s Center for Strategic Research, chairman of the board of trustees of Islamic Azad University, and a long-time foreign-policy adviser to supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. In 2013, he ran as a candidate for president of Iran.

Then there is Major General Mohsen Rezaee who, as commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), helped orchestrate both the AMIA attack and, less than two years earlier, the bombing of the Israel embassy in Buenos Aires. In the decades following these attacks, Rezaee has served as secretary of Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council, chair of the commission for macroeconomics and commerce, and a reviewer of Iran’s 2025 development plans. Rezaee, too, ran for the Iranian presidency in 2013.

The most egregious example of all is the Iranian military commander Ahmad Vahidi, one of five prominent Iranians wanted by Interpol for involvement in the AMIA bombing. In 2008, the European Union froze his personal assets and barred his entry into EU countries.

At the time of the attack, Vahidi was commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, From 2009 to 2013, he served as minister of defense under President Ahmadinejad. “Iran has always protected terrorists, giving them government posts, but I think never one as high as this one,” said Alberto Nisman, the late Argentinian prosecutor.

 

Perhaps it is no surprise that Tehran—not known for its firm commitment to the rule of law in the first place—has been willing and able not only to shield people like Velayati, Rezaee, and Vahidi from justice but to promote them to senior political positions within the regime.

What should surprise us, however, is that some of the most important Iranian and Hizballah foot soldiers who helped carry out the AMIA bombing on the ground in Buenos Aires have also evaded justice and risen to become higher-ranking officials within their terrorist organizations. Worse still, they continue to plot international attacks.

Let’s turn to two of them.

The first is Mohsen Rabbani, who Argentinean prosecutors concluded was the driving force behind Iran’s intelligence efforts in Argentina leading up to the AMIA bombing. For over a decade after arriving in the country in 1983, according to Nisman’s comprehensive 2006 report, Rabbani worked to recruit a network of spies. Indeed, just prior to moving to South America, he had met in Iran with Abolghasem Mesbahi, an Iranian intelligence official who would later defect and to whom Rabbani explained that he was being dispatched “in order to create support groups for exporting the Islamic revolution.”

Subsequently indicted for his role in the AMIA bombing, Rabbani fled to Iran where he remained actively involved in South American operations. According to U.S. court documents, Rabbani also helped four men of Latin American descent who were plotting to bomb New York’s Kennedy International Airport. In a handwritten 2006 letter to Rabbani, one of these plotters, Abdul Kadir, agreed to perform a “mission” to determine whether a group of individuals in Guyana and Trinidad were up to some unidentified task. Kadir, authorities would later determine, was running an intelligence-collection operation in Guyana for his handler Rabbani. Authorities arrested Kadir in Trinidad on June 2, 2007, aboard a plane headed to Venezuela en route to Iran.

In April 2011, a report in the Brazilian magazine Veja cited FBI, CIA, Interpol, and other sources on terrorist activity in Brazil, warning that Rabbani “frequently slips in and out of Brazil on a false passport and has recruited at least 24 youngsters in three Brazilian states to attend ‘religious formation’ classes in Tehran.” In the words of one Brazilian official quoted in the magazine, “Without anybody noticing, a generation of Islamic extremists is appearing in Brazil.”

Two years later, Nisman released a new 500-page report focusing on how the Iranian regime had, since the early 1980s, built and maintained “local clandestine intelligence stations designed to sponsor, foster, and execute terrorist attacks” in the western hemisphere. According to the report, Rabbani continued to oversee Iran’s Latin American operations, tasked with setting up intelligence and espionage networks, directing propaganda operations, and in general “export[ing] the revolution.” He also played a direct role in negotiating Iran’s notorious 2013 “truth commission” deal with the Kirchner administration in Argentina, aimed, as Weiss recounts, at sweeping under the carpet Iran’s involvement in the AMIA attack.

 

Next, Salman Raouf Salman (also known as Salman el-Reda). A Hizballah operative and one of Rabbani’s most trusted lieutenants in Argentina, Salman was a Colombian national of Lebanese decent who according to U.S. authorities served as the AMIA attack’s on-the-ground coordinator. Information provided by the Argentine intelligence service, and cited in the AMIA indictment, suggested he had also been involved in the 1992 bombing of the Israel embassy in Buenos Aires. But as that earlier attack was itself never seriously investigated, Salman was able to continue plotting in the lead-up to the AMIA bombing.

On July 1, 1994, two-and-a-half weeks before the AMIA bombing, Salman personally met the members of the Hizballah hit team as they arrived at the Buenos Aires international airport. While there, according to the Argentinean prosecutors, he placed a call to Hizballah agents coordinating the plot from the Brazilian side of the tri-border area where Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil meet. The purpose of the call was “to report that the Hizballah operatives had arrived as planned.”

Salman used both his own and his in-laws’ homes in Buenos Aires as safe houses for the Hizballah cell, shuttling between these and other Hizballah safe houses in the tri-border area to coordinate the planned operation. As an FBI report on the AMIA bombing confirms, he also made repeated calls apprising senior Hizballah operatives in Lebanon of the status of the planning.

On July 17, the day before the attack, phoning from the vicinity of the garage where the car bomb was being kept just blocks from the AMIA site, Mohsen Rabbani called Salman at a mosque in Buenos Aires. The call lasted a mere 26 seconds, “just the amount of time,” prosecutors would later comment, “that would have been necessary to confirm the success of a key phase of the operation.” The next day, Salman made a final phone call before boarding a flight out of the country. Two hours and twelve minutes later, the Hizballah suicide bomber detonated his truck bomb at the AMIA community center.

In the years that followed, Salman served as an active member of Hizballah’s Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO), the group’s international terrorist apparatus, also known as the External Security Organization (ESO). He was especially active in Southeast Asia and South America, including in a flurry of operational missions in 1997 with three visits to Panama, two to Colombia, and one to Brazil.

In 2014, a Hizballah operative arrested in Peru identified Salman as his handler overseeing the terrorist group’s activities. The targets assigned to the apprehended operative, according to the U.S. government, “included places associated with Israelis and the Jewish community in Peru, as well as areas popular with Israeli backpackers, the Israeli embassy in Lima, and Jewish community institutions.”

Since 2010, in addition, Hizballah operatives carried out pre-operational surveillance of U.S. and Israeli interests in Panama in 2011 and 2012; a Hizballah plot was thwarted in Bolivia in 2017; and another Hizballah operative has since been convicted of carrying out pre-operational surveillance in New York City. Salman is believed to be tied to these plots as well—and is known by U.S. authorities to have played a “direct role in a recent terrorist plot targeting innocent civilians in Chile and Peru.”

Salman is among those subject to an Interpol Red Notice arrest warrant, but otherwise received scant attention until recently. This year, to mark the 25th anniversary of the AMIA bombing, the U.S. government chose to highlight him as an example of what happens when terrorists are not held accountable for their actions. In July, the Treasury Department designated Salman as an international terrorist, and the State Department, in line with its Rewards for Justice program, offered $7 million for information leading to his arrest.

If nothing else, these actions underscore just how high up Salman has climbed on the ladder of Hizballah leaders. As the department’s “WANTED” poster confirms, he “directs and supports Hizballah terrorist activities in the western hemisphere [and] has also been involved in plots worldwide. The ESO is the Hizballah element responsible for planning, coordination, and execution of terrorist attacks outside of Lebanon. The attacks have primarily targeted Israelis and Americans.”

 

The failure to investigate the 1992 bombing of the Israel embassy in Buenos Aires meant that Mohsen Rabbani and Salman Raouf Salman faced few, if any, obstacles as they planned the AMIA bombing less than two years later. Following the latter attack, and the cover-up of that attack by Argentinean leaders, Rabbani and Salman continued to rise through the ranks of their organizations and to plot still more attacks around the world and especially in our hemisphere.

The painful but logical extension of this failure has meant in turn that July 18 is no longer the anniversary of just one Hizballah terrorist attack but two. On July 18, 2012, a Hizballah bus bombing in Burgas, Bulgaria claimed the lives of six innocents: five Israeli tourists and their local Muslim bus driver.

At long last, after more low points like the murder of AMIA prosecutor Alberto Nisman in 2015, the Argentinian government this year designated Hizballah as a terrorist group and has taken action targeting the group’s illicit financial activities. That should be a signal for Europe especially, where a series of Hizballah and Iranian plots has been only narrowly averted, to bring to justice the relevant Hizballah and Iranian agents.

One thing is blindingly clear: as Avi Weiss repeatedly emphasizes in his essay, a failure to hold Iran and Hizballah accountable now will only ensure further such plots in the future.