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Argentine terror trial revives questions about Panama
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Acquittals in Argentine terror case
cast a shadow across Panama

by Eric Jackson

Ten years ago this past July 18, a stolen van packed with ammonium nitrate and fuel oil explosives crashed through the gate of the Argentine Israeli Mutual Aid Association (AMIA), a seven-story building in Buenos Aires that served as the principal community center for Argentina’s Jewish community. The explosives detonated, the suicide bomber and 85 innocent people were killed, and more than 300 others were injured.

The following afternoon in Panama, an Alas Chiricanas commuter plane carrying Free Zone merchants back to the capital from Colon’s France Field airport blew up over Santa Rita Ridge, killing all 21 aboard. Twelve of the victims were Jewish, and upon further investigation it was determined that the semtex plastic explosive charge went off in the hands of a man using the name Lya Jamal. Nobody ever claimed the body of the mysterious Mr. Jamal, who it seems was an Arab traveling under an alias, using fraudulently obtained Colombian documents.

In Beirut a communique was issued in the name of Ansar Allah (God’s Helpers in Arabic), a group not heard of before or since. The document claimed responsibility for both the Buenos Aires and Panama bombings, but upon investigation by authorities in at least four countries, it appeared that the communique was a hoax. At the time, with Lebanon’s civil war not that far in the past, hoaxes of that sort were common enough.

In Argentina, there was a great hue and cry, mainly but not exclusively from the 300,000-strong Jewish community. But the investigation dragged on inconclusively with various fits and starts and increasing suspicions that the national government was dragging its feet at best or actively orchestrating a cover-up at worst.

The frustration sank to new depths this past September 2, when a three-judge panel acquitted five men accused of supplying the suicide bomber’s van. These were the “internal connection,” a car thief, a Muslim used car dealer and three former police officers. They had been on trial for nearly three years. In the course of proceedings charges against 17 co-defendants had been dismissed.

Meanwhile in Panama, two theories quickly emerged. One had it that the commuter plane bombing was an act of anti-Semitic terrorism, most likely carried out in coordination with the Buenos Aires attack. Because one of the passengers on the flight had been named in money laundering investigations, another theory had it that the bombing here had nothing to do with religion or politics, but was just a settling of accounts among ruthless drug traffickers.

Three of the people who were aboard the Alas Chiricanas flight were US citizens, and some of the others held Israeli passports. Thus the FBI and Israeli authorities lent their assistance in the investigation here. However, because of the drug trafficking theory, many of the families of the victims declined to cooperate with the investigation. To rule out the possibility of a drug hit would have meant that the family businesses of the deceased would have to be investigated for possible ties to drug money laundering. Whether or not there had been money laundering taking place, such investigations would have been ruinous, compounding the families’ bereavement with disastrous legal and accounting costs.

Thus only a few of the families, and the local chapter of B’nai Brith, pressed for a full investigation. The case remains open and unsolved.

The Israeli government has long maintained, on the basis of various intelligence leads it considers reliable, that both the Argentina and Panama bombings had their origins in Iran, which it believes hired people from the Lebanese Shiite Hizbollah to carry out the attacks. The Israelis say that the suicide bomber in the AMIA attack was one Ibrahim Hussein Berro, a 29-year-old Shiite Muslim of Lebanese origin, and further assert that the attacks were personally approved by Iran’s leading cleric, Ali Khamenei, and the president of Iran at the time, Hashemi Rafsanjani.

However, the Iranian government and Hizbollah have always denied these allegations.

It would have been out of character for Hizbollah to strike so far away from their home base in southern Lebanon. Still, if one remembers that Hizbollah is an Islamist political party that arose out of Lebanon’s vicious many-sided civil war, originally as an umbrella group embracing a number of armed clans and factions, it would be a mistake to assign a single modus operandi to Hizbollah and expect that in the early 1990s all of the group’s components would necessarily have conformed their actions to that style.

An Argentine court eventually issued a warrant for an Iranian diplomat, who was detained in London but later released when a British court found insufficient evidence to extradite him to Argentina.

Thus the AMIA bombing case seems to have ended with the local suspects acquitted and the international ones untouchable. Even worse, it has left a stain upon Argentine justice, with several careers ruined and one former investigating magistrate in the case facing possible prosecution for allegedly offering a $400,000 bribe for a purported witness to provide perjured testimony to back the prosecution’s theory of the case.

All may not be over in Argentina, however. President Néstor Kirchner has ordered the opening of the government’s intelligence and police files in this matter, and vows to get to the bottom of the case.

Here in Panama, the Argentine verdict passed with little notice and no commentary in the corporate mainstream media. However, in Argentina, Israel and in the Jewish press around the world, this has been a very big story.

Expressing the Israeli government’s opinion was Natan Sharansky, who serves as its minister for the Jewish Diaspora. He voiced his disappointment at the Buenos Aires verdict and his hope that it would not end the search for justice in the case. Concurring with the official Israeli opinion, the American Jewish Committee issued a statement urging that the “Iranian connection needs to be explored.”

What if the Israeli claim is wrong, and the “Ansar Allah” communique was indeed a hoax? In that case we have a pair of apparently coordinated suicide attacks against soft Jewish targets in two different countries, with no claim of responsibility --- something that fits the modus operandi for which al Qaeda has become known over the years. But back in 1994 Osama bin Laden’s jihad against the West, which he began organizing in the early 90s after the United States stationed military forces in Saudi Arabia in the buildup to the Gulf War, had not received much attention from either the public or the policy makers in the countries that he would make his targets.

Bin Laden, a Sunni extremist of the Wahabi strain, is notoriously bigoted against Shiites. If the attacks were carried out by Hizbollah they wouldn’t have involved his followers and vice versa.

And what of the drug-related theory of the attack in Panama? Suicide bombings of airliners are as much out of character for the drug cartels as attacks outside of the Middle East are for Hizbollah. That theory has failed to develop much beyond the fact that one of the passengers was suspected of having underworld ties.

Thus we have a tale of two Latin American countries and their worst-ever cases of terrorism, both unsolved, with one government vowing to pursue the matter and the other maintaining its silence.

In an opinion column in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Avi Beker decried “the increased audaciousness of extremist Islam” and a new strain of anti-Semitism in which Diaspora Jews have become the targets for retaliation against policies of the Israeli government. Looking back at 1994, Beker finds that the “world exhibited appalling apathy at the time. The US under Bill Clinton --- the No. 1 superpower, which led the world toward globalization and democratization following the collapse of the Soviet Union --- was incapable of understanding that the lack of a response to the terrorist attack in Argentina would bring Islamic terror to its own doorstep. Israel, in the wake of the Oslo accords and the establishment of relations with the countries of Eastern Europe, the Vatican and Arab states, was inclined to disregard extremist Islam's takeover of the Arab world's agenda.”

Questions about what to do and where to look next --- which have long been off of the official agenda with respect to Panama’s commuter plane bombing --- are far easier to ask than to answer. But for Argentina’s President Kirchner, those difficulties are not the end of the road, but obstacles to be surmounted. “Our most firm commitment to historical truth will not give up until we achieve justice,” he said at an American Jewish Committee dinner earlier this year.

Also in this section:
Panama News Briefs
Mireya's crowd gets audited and investigated
PRD picks up a legislative seat from the Darien
Argentine terror trial revives questions about Panama
Tom McMurrain arrested for massive fraud in the US

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