Last Tuesday morning, a siren sounded in Buenos Aires to mark the 12th anniversary of the bombing of the AMIA building, the chief offices of Argentina’s Jewish community. The bombing killed 85 people and injured over 250. It was the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. It was the work of Hezbollah, working closely under Iranian sponsorship, and it perfectly illustrates Hezbollah’s intentions, capabilities, and modus operandi. As the West hurtles into a confrontation with Iran, sparked by the current Israeli-Hezbollah conflagration, it is worth examining this deadly effective attack in Argentina over a decade ago.
The AMIA bombing was not Hezbollah’s first strike in Argentina. Two years earlier, a Hezbollah suicide bomber hit the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 and wounding over 200. This attack was in retaliation for Israel’s assassination of Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Abbas Musawi. His replacement was Hezbollah’s current leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Two years later, Hezbollah, under orders from the Iranian leadership, struck again in Buenos Aires. Israel had just captured a senior Hezbollah leader, Mustafa Dirani, who had helped capture Israeli airman Ron Arad. At the same time, Israel had recently bombed a Hezbollah training base, killing over 20 Hezbollah fighters. Finally, Argentina’s President Carlos Menem, had, under U.S. pressure, reneged on deals to provide ballistic-missile and nuclear technology to Syria and Iran. Argentine intelligence believes that the orders for these attacks came from the very top of the Iranian regime. Both of the Buenos Aires terror attacks illustrate how Iran and Hezbollah play hardball with their opponents.
Terrorism requires organization and logistics. Hezbollah’s ability to carry out an attack in Buenos Aires, halfway across the world from their primary base in Lebanon, is impressive. One factor in the AMIA bombing’s success was, according to Argentine intelligence, the support from the Iranian embassy. Mohsen Rabbani, the “cultural attaché,” coordinated the operation. Reportedly he purchased the Renault van used in the bombing. This pattern of Iranian-Hezbollah cooperation is not unique to the Buenos Aires operations. Hezbollah carried out a series of bombings in Paris from December 1985 to September 1986. These bombings were linked to a translator at Iran’s embassy in Paris and led to a diplomatic standoff between France and Iran.
Another factor explaining Hezbollah’s long reach is the organizational genius of Hezbollah’s security chief, Imad Mughniyah. A former gunman with Yasser Arafat’s elite Force 17, Mughniyah is on the FBI’s most-wanted list for his role in the 1985 hijacking of TWA 847 in which a U.S. Navy diver was tortured and killed. Linked to numerous terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings and hostage taking in Lebanon, and the Buenos Aires attacks, Mughniyah is currently believed to be coordinating Iranian and Hezbollah support for Palestinian terrorists. He also met with Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s to forge an alliance between al Qaeda and Hezbollah. Wanted by several governments, Mughniyah keeps a low profile. However, he is believed to have appeared publicly, for the first time in over a decade, with Iran’s President Ahmadinejad at a meeting in Damascus in January.
Finally, the AMIA attack had consequences beyond the mayhem of the bombing itself. The AMIA bombing created an open wound in Argentine politics that has festered for a decade as the investigation has been mired in corruption, cover-ups, and incompetence. This aftermath is typical of Hezbollah terrorism. Time and again, Hezbollah terror attacks have had a profound strategic impact. Hezbollah’s first attack in April 1983 against the U.S. embassy in Beirut wiped out the Beirut CIA station — a blow from which the agency has yet to recover. The double bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks and the French barracks led to the withdrawal of the U.S. led multinational peacekeeping force from Lebanon, leaving Lebanon to the tender mercies of the Syrians and Iranians. Hezbollah’s hostage taking in the 1980s led to secret negotiations by the American and French governments with Iran. These negotiations triggered the Iran-Contra scandal in the U.S. and a similar scandal in France.
The AMIA bombing was the epitome of an Iranian-Hezbollah terror attack. It was a sophisticated act of mass murder that sent a brutal message to Iran’s enemies, while leaving deep political scars.
As the fighting increases, Hezbollah may again turn to international terror. Besides Latin America, Hezbollah has carried out attacks across the Middle East and Europe. Hezbollah cells have been found in the Far East, North America, and Central Asia. It is very likely that Hezbollah retains a formidable international network — and if pressured will use it. In a recent interview with al-Jazeera, Hezbollah Secretary-General Nasrallah stated that Hezbollah was going to take “the initiative” and “offer some surprises.” The AMIA bombing was one Hezbollah surprise and remembering it is a reminder of the danger Hezbollah poses, not only to Israel, but also to the world.
— Aaron Mannes, author of the TerrorBlog and Profiles in Terror: The Guide to Middle East Terrorist Organizations, and he researches terrorism at the Maryland Information and Network Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Maryland. Opinions expressed here are his own.