The Israeli Embassy in Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires was the site of the first explosion - a car bomb - on March 17, 1992. The attack killed 29 people and injured more than 250 others. Among the victims were Israeli diplomats, children, clergy from a church located across the street, and other passersby. The investigation of the case was assigned to Argentina’s Supreme Court and the Chief Justice Ricardo Levene was given the task of investigating and presenting his findings to the court. For over two years, however, the investigation languished and virtually no action was taken, even though Islamic Jihad had claimed responsibility for the explosion.
It was not until July 18, 1994, that the case received serious attention. On that date, the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) Jewish community center in Buenos Aires was bombed - 87 people were killed and over 100 people were injured. This time, Judge Jose Galeano was assigned to investigate the case but, like Judge Levene, he made little progress.
Later in 1994 came the first of several breakthroughs in the embassy bombing case. Six Lebanese citizens and one Brazilian, arrested for operating a drug cache, were found to be members of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese terrorist organization. The Argentine government immediately announced that the men were tied to the embassy bombing, however after several days the suspects were released due to a lack of evidence.
Interest in both cases arose again two years later, in 1996, when the Argentine National Academy of Engineers revealed an “internal explosion theory” that, according to their findings, a bomb had detonated inside of the Israeli Embassy rather than outside in a car. The theory’s conclusion indicated that the Israeli Embassy was attacked by an employee of the embassy rather than by an external enemy terrorist. The engineers who produced this report had blatantly ignored the evidence that indicated a bomb had been set off in a car outside the building and the fact that the Islamic Jihad had admitted responsibility for the attack did not seem to deter the engineers and the Supreme Court from blaming Israelis for their own catastrophe.
Finally, in 1998, a telephone call intercepted from the Iranian embassy in Argentina demonstrated conclusively that Iran had been involved in the attack on the embassy. Argentina expelled six Iranian diplomats from the country but that was the extent of their action, and it was never determined which individuals were culpable for the attack.
Although the judicial system in Argentina neglected from properly investigating the attacks, several Argentine politicians did express their concern over the issue. Unfortunately, there was nothing that the legislative branch can do because the case was still controlled by the Supreme Court.
For a number of years the case remained dormant, but in 2005 new evidence about wanton mistreatment and abuse of the case was revealed. That year, Justice Galeano was impeached for allegedly paying a witness $400,000 to change his testimony and for burning incriminating evidence from the AMIA bombing case. Later, in July 2005, President Nestor Kirchner formally admitted past Argentine government culpability in the investigation of the 1994 AMIA bombing when he stated that the government withheld crucial information that could have solved the case. An Iranian terrorist organization was still suspected of carrying out the bombing, but Kirchner claimed that much of the responsibility should fall on the past Argentine government for its poor handling of the attack.
In November 2005, Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman charged 21-year-old, Lebanese citizen Ibrahim Hussein Berro as the suicide bomber who blew up the Jewish community center in 1994. Nisman said the man belonged to Hezbollah, that relatives had identified him from photographs, and that the despite his indictment he had still not ruled out an Iranian connection to the bombing.
In October 2006, Nisman and fellow prosecutor Marcelo Martínez Burgos formally accused top officials within the government of Iran with orchestrating the bombing and Hezbollah for carrying it out. Their indictment stated that the decision to approve the bombing was ultimately made by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but other senior government members were also part of the discussion, including then-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahijan and National Security Council Secretary Hassan Rouhani.
In 2007, Argentine authorities secured Interpol arrest warrants for five Iranians and a Lebanese over the AMIA attack
In October 2009, Federal Judge Ariel Lijo charged Argentina’s former president Carlos Menem with several crimes related to the investigations, including concealing evidence and abuse of authority. Menem’s brother, Munir Menem, former intelligence services chief Hugo Anzorregui, retired judge Juan Jose Galeano, former deputy secretary of intelligence Juan Carlos Anchezar and former commissioner Jorge Palacios, were also charged with obstructing the first government probe into the 1994 bombing.
In March 2012, Judge Lijo ruled that Menem, Anzorregui, and Palacios would be put on trial for concealing evidence and protecting accomplices in the bombing. Judge Lijo ruling came after evidence was brought to light that Menem and the others had abused their power to hide the involvement of Syrian-Argentine businessman Alberto Kanoore Edul in the attack. That year, the Argentine government also issued arrest warrants for Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi and former prime minister Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Despite these developments, not one person has yet been convicted for either bombing.
In January 2013, Argentine Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman signed a memorandum of understanding with Iran intended to resolve the cases surrounding the two terrorist bombings. On February 28, Argentina’s Congress approved an agreement with Iran to investigate the AMIA bombing. Argentinian Jewish leaders were outraged at the decision to involve Iran in a “truth commission” investigating a crime that Iran is believed to have orchestrated.
In January 2015, Alberto Nisman, the special prosecutor investigating the attacks, was due to appear in front of the Argentine Congress and present his evidence that Iran was behind the bombings and the Argentine government had covered it up. Hours before his scheduled testimony, however, he was found dead in his apartment with one bullet wound to the head and a .22 caliber pistol strewn on the floor near his lifeless body. The door to his apartment was locked and there was no sign of forced entry, so the government immediately ruled his death a suicide. Additional evidence was found, however, that raised doubts that he took his own life; for example, no gun powder was on his hands and no suicide note was found at the scene.
It also made little sense that, after a 10-year investigation into the deadliest terrorist attack in Argentina’s history, Nisman would take his own life just as he was about to present the findings that would vindicate his work. Through his research Nisman identified the Iranian leaders who orchestrated and ordered the attack, traced the names of the Hezbollah operatives involved, exposed Iran’s terror cells in South America, and uncovered the efforts of Argentinian President Cristina Fernández and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman to cover up Iran and Hezbollah’s involvement in the bombings.
Transcripts of intercepted phone conversations between Argentinian and Iranian government officials were made public on January 21, 2015, as part of a 289-page report written by Nisman. The transcripts indicated that Argentina shipped food and offered weapons to Iran in exchange for oil and a promise to shield Iranian officials from charges they orchestrated the AMIA bombing. Trade between the two countries did increase significantly, with surpluses in Argentina’s favor; however, the deal apparently fell through because Argentina could not convince Interpol to rescind arrest warrants against Iranian officials suspected of being involved in the attack.
Argentinian President Cristina Fernández announced on January 22, 2015, that she was convinced Nisman’s death was not a suicide, and that foul play was involved. In an official statement Fernández referred to Nisman’s death as “the suicide (that I am convinced) was not a suicide.” This stands in stark contrast to her statement directly after she learned of Nisman’s death, in which she said, “What was it that led a person to make the terrible decision to take his own life?” Although President Fernández eventually announced that she believed that Nisman did not take his own life, she stood by her claims that Nisman’s allegations against her government are unfounded. On February 3, 2015, it was reported that the draft of an arrest warrant for Argentinian President Christina Fernández was found in the garbage at Nisman’s apartment, adding to the evidence that Nisman’s death was the result of foul play to shield the Argentinian government.
Following Nisman’s death, the case was brought to Judge Daniel Rafecas by prosecutor Gerardo Pollicita. Judge Refecas dismissed the case, citing a lack of evidence.
On March 1, 2016, the former head of the Argentine spy agency, Antonio “Jaime” Stiuso, testified that Nisman’s death was “intimately linked with the complaint that he made,” alleging the Argentine government was involved in a cover-up of the AMIA bombing. After hearing Stuiso’s testimony, Judge Fabiana Palmaghini threw out a February 2016 ruling that there was no evidence Nisman had been murdered.
In August 2017, a toxicology report taken from Alberto Nisman following his death revealed that he had the drug ketamine in his system when he died. Ketamine is an anesthetic used on animals, and although it is sometimes abused by people as a recreational drug there is no reason to suspect that Nisman would have voluntarily ingested the substance. On September 22, 2017, an official investigative report was submitted to Argentinian federal courts concluding that Alberto Nisman had been murdered. The bruises and injuries Nisman suffered at the time of death were inconsistent with suicide and the investigators concluded that there was no gun-powder residue on Nisman’s hands.
Argentina’s Foreign Minister Hector Timmerman penned a letter in February 2015 to his counterpart, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in which he requested that during the nuclear negotiations with Iran, the United States envoy speak to them about the bombing of the AMIA. Timmerman wrote “I am asking you again that the AMIA issue be included in the negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran,” indicating that he had asked Kerry to include the topic in the past.
In April 2015, at the request of all four justices of the National Supreme Court of Argentina, the Argentinian government agreed to declassify all intelligence documents and information related to the 1992 attack on the embassy in Buenos Aires.
The same month the Argentinean Parliament approved a measure providing compensation to the victims of the AMIA bombing and their families. No details were released beyond the declaration that those who were injured, and the families of those who died, would receive a one-time compensation payment.
Former Argentine President Carlos Menem and several other officials were put on trial beginning in August 2015 on charges that they purposefully thwarted an investigation into the bombing. Judge Juan Jose Galeano was allegedly ordered to stop the investigation into the attack by Menem after it was revealed that the suspect had a personal relationship to Menem’s family, according to Argentinian prosecutors. The suspect, Alberto Kanoore Edul, passed away in 2010 and continually denied involvement in the bombing.
International arrest warrants for two Hezbollah members were issued by the Supreme Court of Argentina on October 18, 2015, in connection with the bombings. Hussein Muhammad Ibrahim Suliman and Jose Selan al-Ridah, are wanted for their involvement in both the 1992 and 1994 bombings. Israeli intelligence officials assessed that chances were slim that the criminals would be caught but praised the issuance of warrants for their arrest as very important.
In November 2015, Argentina’s newly elected President Mauricio Marci announced that he would be cancelling the agreement signed between his government and Iran to jointly investigate the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center. Marci addressed the issue in his first press conference after winning a run-off election on November 22, 2015, stating “we will propose to the Congress to cancel the pact with Iran as we promised in the campaign.” The joint investigation agreement has been the subject of much criticism over the years, due to Iran’s involvement in the bombing.
Argentinian federal prosecutor Raul Plee filed a request on December 14, 2015, to re-open the complaint filed by Nisman alleging that former President Fernandez had covered up Iran’s role in the terror attacks. During hearings pertaining to the agreement between Argentina and Iran to jointly investigate the bombings, Plee wrote in his request that Argentina’s Foreign Ministry brought forward “secret and confidential” documents that could be useful in proving Iranian involvement in the attacks. Plee requested that these newly released files be sent immediately to Judge Daniel Rafecas, who dismissed the case in February 2015 following Nisman’s death.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, and secretary-general of Interpol Jurgen Stock, met in Tehran on July 10, 2017, to discuss cooperation in the investigation. Araghchi told the secretary-general that Iran was prepared to work with both Interpol and Argentinian investigators to resolve the case of the bombing. The AMIA Jewish center published a response, stating that the only formal cooperation [with Iran] that Argentina can accept is the appearance of those wanted by Interpol, and of the rest of the accused, before the [Argentine] judiciary.
In October 2017, former intelligence agent Ramon Bogado told an inquiry into the collusion between Iran and the government of former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner that Argentina secretly offered to supply Tehran with nuclear expertise and technology in exchange for exonerating Iran of responsibility for the AMIA bombing. Bogado testified the Kirchner government created shell companies in Argentina and Uruguay to conduct the transactions with Iran and had been influenced to help Iran by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Eamonn MacDonagh – an expert on Argentine politics – said that Nisman believed the “quid pro quo for sweeping AMIA under the carpet would be an oil-for-grain deal,” but the new revelations suggest “the strategic motivation seems to have been some sort of a global ploy on the part of Chavez to use his influence with Cristina to get Argentine nuclear technology to Iran, and thereby strike a blow against the U.S.”
Former Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was indicted on charges of treason by a federal court in Argentina on December 7, 2017. Raids on the day of the indictment resulted in the arrests of three of Kirchner’s associates and aides. Kirchner was accused of obfuscating the Iranian role in the bombings in exchange for a potentially lucrative trade deal. Kirchner denied wrongdoing and claimed immunity from prosecution. An Argentine judge said in March 2018, however, that she will be tried along with 11 other former officials and people associated with her government on charges of coverup and abuse of power. Federal Judge Claudio Bonadio’s ruling noted that during the Kirchner administration, “secret and official negotiations” were held between senior Argentine and Iranian representatives “that culminated in the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding” — the 2013 pact that was voided following current President Maurico Macri’s election victory in 2015. Bonadio stated Kirchner and her colleagues had agreed to end the pursuit of the six Iranians wanted in connection with the AMIA bombing, “to the detriment of justice, the victims and punishment of the accused.”
Annual Protests Over AMIA Bombing
On July 11, 2018, Argentinian Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral called for the arrest of Iranian official Alí Akbar Velayati in connection with the bombings. Velyati was serving as Iran’s Foreign Minister when the attack took place and has been implicated in the ordering of the bombing. An international arrest warrant has been active Velyati since 2006 for his involvement in multiple terror attacks.
A court in Argentina convicted eight people on February 28, 2019, for obstructing the investigation into the attack on the AMIA, the first time any top officials have been held criminally accountable in the case. Five people, including former President Carlos Menem, were acquitted.
Juan José Galeano, the judge who originally oversaw the investigation, was sentenced to six years. He oversaw the investigation that ended with the acquittal in 2004 of several police officers who were implicated in the attack. He was impeached a year later. Prosecutors said he was involved in a scheme to pay a defendant $400,000 from state funds to implicate a group of Buenos Aires police officers in the bombing. The man who received the bribe, Carlos Telleldín, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. Telleldín was arrested one week after the AMIA attack along with five Buenos Aires police officers who allegedly were involved in the operation.
AMIA and DAIA appealed, arguing that the evidence collected before the illegal payment should be considered valid. The Supreme Court agreed in 2009 and ordered a new trial for Telleldín.
Prosecutors also alleged the judge stopped an investigation at Menem’s request, into the possible complicity of Alberto Jacinto Kanoore Edul, an Argentine of Syrian descent, in the attack.
Hugo Anzorreguy, the former intelligence chief, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison. The former deputy intelligence secretary, Juan Carlos Anchezar, was sentenced to three years.
The trial did not reveal any new information as to the motivation for, or culprits in the attack.
In July 2019, the Argentine government’s Financial Information Unit froze the assets of members of Hezbollah a day after the country created a new list for people and entities linked to terrorism, including Hezbollah. The designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist group was the first by any Latin American country.
Also in 2019, the trial of Telleldín, the car mechanic accused of preparing the car bomb that blew up the AMIA, finally began, 10 years after the Supreme Court ordered his retrial. According to the indictment, the JTA reported, “Telleldín filled a Renault van, the engine of which was found in the rubble after the explosion, with explosives. He left it in a parking lot and handed it over to unidentified individuals who carried out the bombing.”
On December 23, 2020, Argentine Jewish groups were shocked when a federal court acquitted Telleldín. The AMIA and DAIA Jewish umbrella groups said they would appeal the verdict.
Sources: B’nai B’rith Center for Public Policy, “Seven years and counting: The 1992 Israeli Embassy Bombing in Buenos Aires,” B’nai B’rith (March 1999).
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Photos: AMIA after bombing - Agencia Noticias Argentinas, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
IDF - IDF Spokesperson's Unit, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Protests - Jaluj, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.