Remembering the AMIA Bombing:
Why It Matters 26 Years Later
July 18, 2020 | Newsweek | By Toby Dershowitz
Alberto Nisman, the tireless Argentine prosecutor who led the decade-long investigation into the bombing of the 1994 AMIA Jewish community center in downtown Buenos Aires, once told me that when Argentina’s president Nestor Kirchner asked him to take on the case, he said to the president that he would only do so under one condition. “What is that condition?” the president asked. Nisman answered, “That I be allowed to take the investigation wherever the evidence leads.”
In Argentina, such independence is far from a given. Prior to Nisman taking over the case, Judge Juan Jose Galeano was removed from office and impeached for mishandling the investigation into the bombing.
Nisman’s investigation had found that Iranian officials at the highest levels of government had planned and directed the bombing, whose youngest victim, Sebastian Barreiro, was only five years old. He died holding his mother’s hand as they walked in front of the building. The oldest victim, Faiwel Pablo Dyjament, was a 73-year-old tailor. Eighty-three others were killed in the attack on the community center.
Based on Nisman’s granular investigation, in 2007, INTERPOL issued red notices, akin to wanted-persons notices, requesting law enforcement worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest perpetrators of the bombing when they travel internationally. Five red notices against Iranian officials and one against a Lebanese Hezbollah official remain in force today.
Iran and Lebanon have never turned over the accused to stand trial. Argentina does not allow trials in absentia. Justice has not been served.
Nisman had come to suspect something was amiss. In 2015, he exposed a cover-up involving then-President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. For this, Nisman ultimately paid with his life. He was found murdered the day before he was to present evidence to the Argentine Congress contending that Cristina Kirchner sought to whitewash Iran’s role in the deadliest terrorist attack in the country’s history.
In 2017, federal judge Claudio Bonadio found—based on the case Nisman had built—that there was preliminary evidence that Kirchner, as president, and 11 others, sought to erase Iran’s role in the bombing in exchange for expanded trade and perhaps other benefits. His finding came after she left the presidential palace and became a senator, where she received partial immunity and avoided incarceration. The trial is still pending and there is doubt as to whether it will ever take place.
Remembering the AMIA bombing still matters 26 years later because Argentina has not entirely come to terms with holding accountable those responsible for the attack. Although last year Argentina finally designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and froze assets of Hezbollah financiers—an important step—the terror group continues to operate in northern Argentina and in the porous Tri-Border Area with Paraguay and Brazil, where the AMIA bombers reportedly entered the country prior to the attack. Argentina needs to step up and actively thwart Hezbollah’s malign activities.
It matters because, notwithstanding the evidence of Iran’s role in masterminding the attack, then-President Kirchner’s government signed in 2013 a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Tehran that would have created the appearance of jointly investigating the bombing—akin to an arsonist “investigating” the fire he had himself set. If implemented, the MOU might have caused the red notices to be lifted. INTERPOL should not lift the red notices until the accused stand trial. And an Argentine court found the MOU itself to be unconstitutional.
It matters because in 2013, INTERPOL suspiciously placed “caveats” or “waivers” on the red notices, such that they acted more like flashing yellow lights than true red lights. When the accused travel, their notices could be overlooked. Indeed, since 2007, red notice holders and those with Argentine arrest warrants implicated in the planning and directing of the AMIA attack have traveled with impunity to more than 20 countries. Law enforcement should ensure the red notices are enforced.
It matters because as vice president, a position she now holds, Mrs. Kirchner has sought to unwind the legal case against herself and others implicated in the cover-up by placing close associates in positions of power to achieve precisely that.
It matters because while Alberto Fernandez in 2015 dismissed portrayals of Nisman’s murder as a suicide—he said, “no one in Argentina thinks it was suicide, absolutely no one, least of all Cristina Fernández de Kirchner”—he has, since his election to the presidency in 2019, done a 180. Fernandez is heard on Netflix in early 2020 saying, “until now no serious evidence has appeared saying Nisman was killed.” Moreover, in recent months, new Fernandez appointees have reportedly interfered with the ongoing investigation. The president is mindful that it was Mrs. Kirchner who originally planted the discredited theory that Nisman committed suicide, hours after the prosecutor was found dead.
If Nisman committed suicide, there would be no need to hold anyone accountable. If he had been murdered, questions about who ordered the murder and who carried it out would need to be answered; culprits would have to be held accountable. Argentine officials have sought to sew confusion about the murder, but these questions must be answered in a transparent process.
It matters because Argentina’s current minister of security, Sabina Frederic, said that the prior administration’s designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization amounts to “buying a problem we don’t have.” Fortunately, federal judge Miguel Angel Guerrero of Misiones, who has jurisdiction over this, extended the designation for one more year, freezing financial assets belonging to Hezbollah, the Barakat clan and other Hezbollah operatives. He and President Fernandez deserve recognition for this. However, given the all-too-frequent threats made to judges, prosecutors and witnesses, the Argentine government must now ensure the safety of the judge who made that determination and ensure it is robustly enforced.
It matters because Nisman’s investigation into the AMIA bombing provides a roadmap for law enforcement to understand Iranian penetration of Latin America—and, indeed, the entire Western Hemisphere.
And it matters because the 85 victims of the AMIA bombing, along with all of Argentina, deserve to have those who planned and executed the bombing—and those who sought to cover up Iran’s role—held accountable.
There are signs that President Fernandez is seeking to make amends by reaching out to Jewish communities both domestically and abroad. His outreach is hopeful. But on this 26th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history and with the backdrop of so many cover-ups in the past, we owe it to the AMIA victims to ensure his outstretched arm produces real justice, not just one more cover-up.
Toby Dershowitz is senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan think tank focusing on national security issues. Follow her on Twitter @tobydersh.