By Toby Dershowitz and Gardner Lange
18 January 2018
On January 18, 2015, Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found bludgeoned and shot to death in his normally well-protected Buenos Aires apartment. His assassination was likely one more attempted cover-up in a long list of cover-ups associated with Argentina’s deadliest terrorist attack, the 1994 Iran-backed Hezbollah bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.
No doubt, whoever murdered Nisman intended to bury the body of evidence he had accumulated about the AMIA bombing and the attempt to cover up the role Iran had played in the terrorist attack, which killed 85 people and injured hundreds more. Why was Nisman murdered? The very next day he was scheduled to reveal to the Argentine Congress evidence, based on thousands of legal wiretaps, that the attempted cover-up led straight up to then-president of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
While technically, Nisman’s murder is still unsolved, much light has been shed on it. During the past year, his death was determined by a multidisciplinary report written by Argentina’s Border Police to be a murder, not a suicide. This contradicts what Kirchner sought to portray on television hours after his death was announced. The report also confirmed that at least two people were involved in drugging Nisman with Ketamine—often used to sedate animals—beating him, and then killing him with a bullet to his head. And just weeks ago, a judge indicted Diego Lagomarsino, Nisman’s IT assistant, as an accessory to the murder. Lagomarsino had claimed he had brought Nisman the gun at his own request to protect himself and his daughters, and that Nisman had used the gun to commit suicide.
Perhaps the most important development came on Dec 7, 2017, when Federal Judge Claudio Bonadio issued indictments for “treason against the homeland” against Kirchner, her foreign minister Hector Timerman, her intelligence chief, her top legal adviser, two pro-Iran activists and ten others. At the heart of Bonadio’s indictments was the evidence that Nisman had formally filed with a judge a few days before his murder. He was scheduled to present this evidence to Congress on January 19, 2015—the day after his assassination. Who can doubt that Nisman was murdered to prevent him from doing so?
Whether or not Kirchner, who has immunity from prosecution as a newly elected senator, ever serves jail time, Nisman has been vindicated. But vindication is not enough. We must ensure the virtual roadmap Nisman charted about how Iran penetrates, recruits and uses its Hezbollah proxies, does not come to a dead end.
Nisman did not only identify Ibrahim Hussein Berro, an Iranian-backed Hezbollah operative, as the individual who drove the suicide van, laden with 606 pounds of explosives that tore into the AMIA building on July 18, 1994. His exhaustive work also found that senior Iranian officials had planned the attack and recruited Hezbollah proxies to execute it.
Based on Nisman’s evidence, INTERPOL issued red notices, akin to international arrest warrants, for Ali Fallahian, then Iran’s intelligence minister; Mohsen Rabbani, then-cultural attaché at Iran’s embassy in Buenos Aires; Ahmad Reza Asghari, also a diplomat at its embassy; Ahmad Vahidi, a former Iranian defense minister; and Mohsen Rezai, then-commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
These red notices – for aggravated homicide – remain in force, but Iran has refused to turn over the accused to stand trial in an Argentine court. Argentina issued its own arrest warrants for Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Iranian foreign minister, and for the now deceased Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president of Iran.
Nisman left no stone unturned to prove that, notwithstanding Kirchner and Timerman’s assertions to the contrary, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) they penned with Iran was really aimed at getting rid of these red notices—a move that would essentially provide impunity to the accused—in return for increased trade. Nor might Nisman have imagined that it would be Iran’s current foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who would – perhaps inadvertently – reveal in a November 7, 2017, letter, that the MOU’s goal was indeed to get the INTERPOL red notices lifted, a blow to the scant credibility the former top Argentine officials’ assertion had gained.
In a May 2013 report, Nisman accused Iran of recruiting and radicalizing members of the local population and creating terrorist networks throughout Latin America, including in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Suriname. His roadmap provided granular details that remain as instructive today as they were when he published the 500-page document. The State Department affirms that Hezbollah maintains an active presence in the hemisphere to this day.
Last week, the Department of Justice announced the establishment of the Hezbollah Financing and Narcoterrorism Team. The initiative builds on prior efforts, including Project Cassandra—a law-enforcement initiative targeting Hezbollah’s drug trafficking and related operations. After some major prosecutorial successes, some say Project Cassandra was disrupted for political reasons while the United States was negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran. Perhaps reflecting a message that trickled down through the bureaucracy during that period, an American diplomat shockingly told us that the families of the AMIA victims should “put the terrorist attack behind them.”
The new initiative can be effective only if it is not subjected to the inevitable shifts in political winds. The pursuit of Iranian-backed Hezbollah activities must not be turned on and off like a spigot, even during periods of diplomatic engagement with Iran. Hezbollah’s malign activity does not ebb and flow. Neither should the government’s determination and efforts to bring to justice those planning, financing, or engaging in this activity.
Nisman’s death should not be in vain. Iranian officials have tried to absolve themselves of countless terrorist acts around the globe. Law enforcement, policymakers and indeed all those concerned about terrorism should heed Nisman’s alarming lessons.
Toby Dershowitz is senior vice president for government relations and strategy at the non-partisan Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Gardner Lange is her research assistant.