Editor's Notes: Exposing Iran's ruthlessness

Investigator Alberto Nisman has proved, to the satisfaction of Interpol, that the Islamic republic carried out the worst terror attack ever staged in Argentina because its nuclear ambitions were being thwarted. If only the feckless international community would take note...

By DAVID HOROVITZ
December 20, 2007 23:47

 
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Just down the road from AMIA, the multi-story Jewish community headquarters in downtown Buenos Aires, on July 18, 1994, Maria Nicolasa Romero and her young son prepared to cross the road. The boy slipped out of his mother's hand and dashed into the street ahead of her, however, and only narrowly escaped being hit by a white Renault Trafic van that was speeding by. Relieved that her son was unharmed but shocked that the van hadn't so much as slowed to avoid him, Romero screamed angrily at the driver, who naturally turned to look at her as he sped away. That was the last time anyone saw Ibrahim Berro alive. Seconds later, Berro rammed the explosives-filled van into the AMIA building, with catastrophic consequences. The entire building collapsed, 85 people were killed and hundreds were wounded in what remains the worst ever terrorist attack in Argentina. After it dawned on her that she had seen the suicide bomber moments before he struck, Romero provided the Argentinean investigators with enough of a description to draw up an Identikit picture, which was duly filed away amid the mass of paperwork as the probe gathered pace. And there it remained for a decade, while the investigation deteriorated into a farce of cover-up, bribery and corruption... until Alberto Nisman was appointed to the case. Smartly dressed, friendly and even-tempered, Nisman doesn't look notably heroic. He is. Three years ago, he was named to head a 40-strong team that essentially restarted the AMIA investigation from scratch. Today, the previous, skewed probe has been thoroughly discredited. Those who so signally failed to bring the culprits to justice - including judges and investigators - are themselves on trial or facing indictment. Nisman is collecting evidence which may lead to charges against the president, Carlos Menem, whose admirable foreign policy shift prompted the bombing but whose influence over the failed probe is suspect. And thanks to Nisman and his team, the world now knows exactly who is to blame for the death and devastation of July 18, 1994 - who it was that dispatched Ibrahim Berro on his murderous mission. Once investigators focused seriously and honestly on the trail of evidence, it led unwaveringly to Teheran. A family man who says he was most dismayed by the death threat he found recorded on his home answering machine one day because his daughter was standing next to him as he played it, Nisman insists that he won't cease his work on the case until the perpetrators and orchestrators have been tried, convicted and jailed. Given that his list of defendants runs all the way up to a former Iranian president, the supposedly "reformist" and "moderate" Hashemi Rafsanjani, that might take some time. Though defeated by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a bid for another presidential term in 2005, Rafsanjani holds immense power in today's Teheran, as the chairman of the Assembly of Experts that elects Iran's supreme leader. But while Nisman knows that the current Iranian regime will "never" cooperate with his investigation, or with the arrest warrants he has remarkably secured from Interpol over Iran's anguished objections, he says calmly that times change and the unexpected frequently happens. Perhaps one of his targets will be foolish enough to leave the safety of Iran, he posits. Or perhaps, however improbable this may seem today, Iran will one day surrender the defendants for trial in a third country. He doesn't cite the precedent, but Libya did precisely this, giving up two nationals to face trial in the Lockerbie bombing (one of whom was convicted and is currently mounting a new appeal). A NON-OBSERVANT Jew who is nonetheless said to have a picture of the Western Wall as the screensaver on his office computer, Nisman made his first ever visit to Israel this week - a trip that included work meetings and a couple of lectures. In a quiet room at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the IDC Herzliya, speaking through a translator, he talked me through the AMIA bombing, from the meeting at which it was hatched to the terrible moment of Berro's detonation. Like the attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires which preceded it by two years and left 29 people dead, the AMIA blast, he says, was primarily motivated by Iranian fury - fury that Menem had shown the determined gall to sever the hitherto fruitful partnership between Buenos Aires and Teheran on all matters nuclear. The Syrian-born Menem, a flamboyant, mercurial character who was president from 1989-1999, reoriented Argentinean policy, came closer to the West and Israel, and in the early 1990s suspended and subsequently terminated the training of Iranian nuclear technicians in his country and the transfer of nuclear technology to theirs. Iran tried pleading, then legalese and then threats to encourage Menem to reconsider. When all that failed, says Nisman, it resorted to terrorism. Immediately after the AMIA blast, Menem, who plainly sensed that this was Iran's revenge for his defiance, said he feared his own life was now in danger, but vowed that the culprits would be brought to justice no matter who or where they were. That certainly was not the thrust of the initial investigation, which was branded "a national disgrace" by subsequent president Nestor Kirchner; Nisman and his team are working to establish whether Menem succumbed to threats and/or bribery and ensured that Iran was kept off the hook. THE MEETING at which the AMIA blast was conceived and approved, Nisman says definitively, took place in Mashad, Iran's second largest city, on August 14, 1993, and was attended by then-president Rafsanjani, then-foreign minister Ali Velayati, then-intelligence minister Ali Fallahian, two Argentinean-based Iranians and two Iranian military chiefs. Mohsen Rabbani, later given diplomatic immunity as the cultural attache at the Iranian embassy in Buenos Aires, had flown in from Argentina to Mashad with a list of three potential targets on which Iran could unleash its anger. "But we don't know what the other two were, since AMIA was the first one discussed and it was immediately approved," says Nisman. Nisman's evidence, which Interpol found so credible as to uphold the arrest warrants in a unanimous vote of its executive committee in Marrakesh last month, includes a detailed, damning money trail and testimony from another former Iranian president, Abolhassan Banisadr, who now lives in France. While Nisman stresses that his brief is only to investigate the AMIA attack, he says that other investigations, in other countries, have gathered evidence that the same Rafsanjani-led Iranian terror committee ordered a series of attacks in the early and mid-1990s in France, Germany, Switzerland and the Middle East. "All the investigators found the same hierarchy," he notes. Hizbullah, as ever, was ordered to carry out the AMIA attack, Nisman continues, with its terror chief, Imad Mughniyeh, who has been indicted by Argentina over the Israeli Embassy bombing as well, flown from Lebanon to Teheran for instructions. Berro, the fourth of five siblings of a Lebanese family - the father was a Fatah "militant," one brother was killed in a suicide attack on an Israeli target in south Lebanon in 1989 and another brother is also believed to have died fighting against Israel in Lebanon - was selected for the mission. Two of his brothers had emigrated to the United States. His mother, fearing that his Hizbullah activities would get him killed too, had wanted Ibrahim to join them. He would have been in Detroit, and thus unavailable, but was refused a visa, says Nisman. The support team flew into Buenos Aires on July 1, 1994, two weeks before the blast. Berro traveled to the capital via Paraguay and Brazil, crossing into Argentina across the porous "triple frontier" at the junction of the Argentinean, Brazilian and Paraguayan borders where Hizbullah has long had a presence. The Renault Trafic had been packed with a mixture of locally bought Amonal explosives and TNT smuggled in from abroad. It was parked, three days before the blast, a few blocks from the AMIA building. Berro was making that short journey when he narrowly missed Romero's impulsive child. In 2005, Nisman received a photograph from Detroit of the whole Berro family. "I held my breath," he remembers. "But the picture of Ibrahim exactly matched the identikit." NISMAN says the Iranians told him, at their recent failed Interpol appeal hearings, that he faced trial in Teheran for slandering their nation, that his capture would be sought, and that he would spend years in their jails. He does not appear particularly fazed by this, only saying lightly that, no, he doesn't have plans to visit the Islamic Republic in the near future. Dedicated, professional and scrupulous, Nisman made astonishing progress in turning around a corrupted investigation, identifying the perpetrators more than a decade after the fact, and resolutely documenting his evidence to the satisfaction even of Arab nations on the Interpol executive committee in the face of a direct and threatening Iranian challenge. His demand now is that the international community show similar resolve in seeking the extradition of those responsible. But it's an unlikely hope, and Nisman knows it. Even though he has proved the commissioning of mass murder by the president of a sovereign nation - state-sponsored terror at its most direct, incontrovertible level - Nisman has no reason to believe that the international community will act with less spinelessness toward an ex-Iranian president and his henchmen than it does toward Rafsanjani's current, genocide-inciting successor. Indeed, the bombings of AMIA and the Israeli Embassy, with the deaths of more than 100 innocent civilians, underline that the resolution with which Alberto Nisman has so admirably pursued his vicious prey is matched only by Iran's ruthlessness in pursuit of its nuclear ambitions.

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