Luciano Mondino

The Islamist threat in Latin America

The plot surrounding the murder of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Natalio Nisman, the AMIA bombing, anti-Semitism and Islamic radicalism.

Eight years have passed since the assassination of prosecutor Alberto Nisman, the Argentine prosecutor who was investigating the responsibility of Iran and Hezbollah in the 1994 AMIA bombing and the spread of Islamic terrorism in Latin America. He was not only investigating the tragic bombing, but a whole network that connected Islamism and organised crime and required local complicity to act in 1992, 1994 and 2015.

Who was Alberto Nisman

The prosecutor was appointed in 2006 by Néstor Kirchner, then president of Argentina and husband of the president and Nisman’s accuser, Cristina Fernández, to find the truth in the bombing that had left 85 people dead and more than 300 injured.

The attack on the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) took place on 18 July 1994 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when a suicide car driven by a Hezbollah cell, Ibrahim Hussein Berro, crashed into the building on Pasteur Street.

Two years earlier, Argentina had also been attacked by Islamic terrorism against the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, an unfortunate episode in history about which very little is said.

As soon as the AMIA bombing occurred, part of the then Argentine intelligence services investigated an Iranian lead that linked to a hitherto unknown name: Moshen Rabbani, a cultural attaché at the Iranian embassy in Buenos Aires.

The Iranian lead was backed up by the Nisman-led investigation by tying up some previously loose ends: high levels of the Iranian government, an illegal espionage structure (Quds Brigades), an operational force (Hezbollah) and organised local complicity.

The nuclear motif and a triangulation from Caracas

By that time, the nuclear issue between Iran and Argentina had become sufficiently tense following the interruption of contracts between the two countries. What for Tehran was a betrayal, for Argentina it was a move away, at least for a while, from a then nascent threat.
Since 1979, Iran had become a theocratic regime under the orders of the Ayatollahs and Khomeini, who were sending emissaries to various Latin American countries such as Argentina and Brazil. The latter had one aim: to spread the revolution.

The work they carried out in Argentina was especially of an intelligence and criminal structure.

Adopted as a principle of the Islamic constitution, the Iranians intended to spread their model throughout the world. By that time, Iran’s nuclear programme was already beginning to create the threat that exists today and that has the world on edge because of its danger.

To this must be added another facet of the Iranian government: its constant harassment and action against Israelis and the Jewish people inside and outside Israel. For this mission, a real military organisation and elite groups that answer to the Supreme Leaders have been structured: today, after the repression of the protests in Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and the Quds Brigades, an elite body at the service of the former, were and continue to be responsible for organising the expansion of the revolution and consolidating Iran’s satellite countries or groups.

The work they carried out in Argentina was especially of an intelligence and criminal structure. This was entrusted to Mohsen Rabbani, who in addition to being in the embassy, was one of the leaders of the At-Tauhid Mosque in Flores, a mosque known for its radicalism.

There are some indications that this criminal and clandestine intelligence apparatus is still intact: the arrival of the YV3531 aircraft of Emtrasur Cargo, a Venezuelan airline with links to Mahan Air, an Iranian airline sanctioned for the transfer of weapons to Syria and Lebanon, in Buenos Aires in June 2022.

Days after parking in Ciudad del Este, the aircraft arrived in Argentine territory and, due to weather conditions, became entangled in a web that linked public opinion, Argentine politics and the intelligence services of neighbouring countries. The latter, in view of the attacks that took place 31 and 29 years ago, became especially relevant when it became known that part of the crew linked to the Quds Brigades were on board the aircraft.

Manned by Gholamreza Ghasemi, the crew was linked to the Quds Brigades and flights to Syria and Lebanon to supply weapons to Hezbollah, something alerted not only by FBI reports but also by intelligence from Arab countries.

The central point in Latin America is the strategic, political, military and nuclear alliance with Venezuela. Especially the relationship (even personal) between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chávez over a key material: uranium.

Since Chávez came to power in Venezuela, the national company Ehdasae Sanat began operating in the country to extract the material that is key to Iran’s nuclear programme. To this must be added the manufacture of national missiles and nuclear warheads.

Argentina appeared on the scene in 2007 after Chávez announced the beginnings of a Venezuelan nuclear programme and at a time when relations with Iran were more lively than ever. The Persian country was already under sanctions of all kinds as the Security Council first and the United States unilaterally implemented a package of sanctions aimed at discouraging Iran’s nuclear spread.

The reason for the sanctions then was to have the same effect that the new sanctions packages should have today: to discourage the Ayatollah regime, known for its repressive nature, from becoming a threat that would ignite nuclear contagion, i.e. the nuclear arms race in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

It was Hugo Chávez who also favoured the creation of a nuclear monster in the Middle East that today, 16 years later, threatens the security of neighbouring countries. In 2007 an event also occurred that raised all the alarm bells: the Venezuelan Antonini Wilson was arrested at Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires with a briefcase containing 800,000 dollars from the Chávez oil company, money that was later indicated as a contribution to the campaign of the then-presidential candidate, Cristina Fernández.

Since 2007, the triangulation between Buenos Aires, Caracas and Tehran had been sufficiently well oiled to start working. Decades after the attacks, Iran once again found a solid operational base. In 2011, when Cristina Kirchner began her carnal alignment with Chávez’s Venezuela and the Islamic Republic of Iran governed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one of the most reactionary rulers of Shiism, Argentina began to get fully involved and to take steps that would later be very difficult to retrace.

Emboldened by elections that gave it almost total control of the legislative branch, the entire executive branch and subjugating the judiciary, Kirchnerism began to work on what would become known as the Pact with Iran signed in 2013. The Pact with Iran, declared unconstitutional in 2014, swept away the AMIA case for political purposes: Argentina, which was going through a severe energy crisis as a result of the Kirchner government’s extremely bad policies, decided to tilt the Buenos Aires-Caracas-Tehran triangle towards an Argentine-Iranian axis.

Nor should it be forgotten that, at that time, Argentina was also experiencing a severe international isolation, a debt crisis and no interest in regional and global forums. At the time, Iran was a strategic partner of Kirchnerism.

Those who also maintained well-oiled links with people linked to Iran and the Flores mosque, which had been pointed to as the intelligence hub for the AMIA bombing, were and continue to be truly deplorable characters in Argentina: years later, accused by Alberto Nisman, these characters with strong links to Islamic extremists were and continue to be Luis D’elía and Fernando Esteche, two attendees of the mosque’s activities.

A key player in the relationship between Islamist groups and Latin America is Tareck El Aissami, who was a minister in Maduro’s regime and is now oil minister. He is also the nexus with Hezbollah and other groups in the Triple Frontier.

It is in this context that Argentina signed the memorandum with Iran to fabricate his innocence. Specified by the Iranian envoys: no commercial advances can be made as long as the accusations against Iran persist. And there was a reason for this.

In 2011, the Iranian minister, Ahmad Vahidi, was expelled from Bolivia because he is still wanted by Interpol (red notices) and must be immediately detained once the security forces intercept him.

Something similar had happened when Iranian officials wanted to travel to South Korea. It was and continues to be very unhappy for senior Iranian government officials to have to escape Interpol with every trip. And this is really not minor.

Argentina’s accusations to Interpol in 2007, which were validated by countries that may have been closer to Iran at the time, point to high-level officials: one of them is the current vice-president, Mohsen Rezai, who travelled to Nicaragua in January 2022.

All these years of links between Iran and Argentina, via Venezuela, also occurred at the same time as the growth of Hezbollah in the Triple Frontier that links Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, where today there is no intention of controlling it.

There is a cooperation agreement signed after the 2001 attacks, but there is little commitment to keep it in place. These agreements, moreover, were seriously discouraged during the Lula Da Silva and Kirchner governments, respectively.

Why was prosecutor Nisman murdered? Justice today pursues two premises: first, that Nisman died because of the accusation he had made.

Moreover, with Brazil something else is going on: Brazilian governments have never designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, something that Macri’s government did in 2019. All this came to a head in 2015 when Nisman denounced Cristina Kirchner.

In the Triple Frontier and Venezuela, these Islamic groups operate in a grey area where Islamic terrorism and organised crime, especially the forgery and distribution of travel documents (passports), trafficking in arms, people and others, are commonplace.

Why was prosecutor Nisman murdered? Justice today pursues two premises: first, that Nisman died because of the accusation he had made. The prosecutor intended to show the existence of an impunity pact and a criminal conspiracy to exonerate Iran.

Second, that Nisman was murdered and that suicide could not be proven, that there were unusual movements by spies near Nisman’s home that night, that there are contradictions in his statements and that the crime scene was invaded.

There is also a fact that is often overlooked: on 17 January, a fire in the Casa Rosada eliminated thousands of records of the government’s entry to the house from the last four years when the Argentine government was negotiating with Iran. What was there we will never know.

With Nisman dead, the man who knew the most about the AMIA case and who was determined to unravel a three-decade-long network, Iran continued to enter Argentina and the groups linked to the mosque continue to operate, waiting for a loophole of impunity.

In 2019, Cristina Kirchner, then denounced for leading the criminal conspiracy, presented her book “Sincerely” in Argentina. One of the attendees was none other than Mohsen Ali of the Flores mosque and a known denialist and anti-Semite. For Mohsen Ali, the AMIA bombing presents his doubts. They always find a way to relativise the murder of 85 people, the wounding of more than 300 and the assassination of the prosecutor investigating those deaths. Iran continues today to fail to hand over those accused by Argentina.

Nisman’s death dusted off more than three decades of a parallel structure that struck twice in our country and is always alive to strike again. Forgetting, unfortunately, ends up being an ally of impunity.

About the Author
Master's Degree in International Politics from the Complutense University of Madrid. Interested in transnational terrorism, organized crime, radicalism and the fight against anti-Semitism.
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