Two trials in Argentina, one just concluded and one just beginning, deal with the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. That act may be linked to Panama’s deadliest bombing, which took place the day after the Buenos Aires blast.
Similarities and possible connections with attacks in Argentina, Colombia and the United States may shed light on Panamas most notorious unsolved crime, the July 19, 1994 bombing of an Alas Chiricanas commuter flight from Colon to Panama, which killed all 21 persons aboard. However, it seems unlikely that Panamas authorities, who face little pressure to solve the crime, will resume the investigation in any serious way.
The commuter plane went down on Santa Rita Ridge when a Motorola radio packed with semtex plastic explosives went off in a briefcase held in the hands of a Mr. Jafar, according to airport security and immigration records a Colombian citizen of Lebanese origin. Upon further investigation, it was established that Jafar’s was an invented identity. No family reclaimed the remains, and no friends eulogized his memory.
Shortly after the bombing, however, a mysterious group calling itself Ansar Allah (Gods Helpers in Arabic) sent a communique to Middle Eastern press agencies, praising but not specifically claiming responsibility for the ALAS bombing and for a July 18 truck bombing at the Asociacion Mutua Israelita Argentina (AMIA) Jewish community center in Bueno Aires, Argentina.
There were 85 people killed in the AMIA attack, which is now the subject of a controversial trial in Argentina.
The AMIA event is, in the minds of many investigators, closely connected with another bombing in Argentina, the March 17, 1992 suicide bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aries. That attack killed 29 people.
A communique in the name of Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for that act, and its claim was verified with convincing videotape evidence.
There are, and were at the time, a number of militant Islamist groups around the world calling themselves Islamic Jihad. Some, like the one in Egypt, are known to be part of Saudi zealot Osama bin Ladens international network. At the time the Islamic Jihad that Argentine authorities identified as the one that carried out the Buenos Aries attack was the Lebanese group, which is associated with Hizballah.
In 1992 and 1994, Israel was occupying part of Lebanon and at war with the Hizballah Lebanese Shiite organization. Hizballah literally means Party of God and is now the dominant Shiite political party in the Lebanese parliament, but it can be misleading to view the organization as either a traditional political party or as a centrally directed militia.
The organization arose during the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s and 1980s, as a militant response to first Palestinian militias and then the Israeli army asserting dominance over Shiite-majority areas and also as a political challenge to the corrupt and ineffectual Amal militia and political organization that had previously represented Shiites. Hizballah, which was inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution and received financial and political backing from Teheran, attracted dozens of small groups to its umbrella, achieving ever more unity but never establishing a rigid command structure in the nature of those typically found in conventional armies or Marxist-Leninist parties.
If there is a working relationship between Hizballah and bin Ladens network, that has not been documented or publicized in the west. Osama bin Laden is a fanatical exponent of the majority Sunni strain of Islam, with which the minority Shiite strain has been at war off-and-on for many centuries. It was so in the Lebanese civil war, in which the Shiite Amal and Hizballah militias sometimes did battle with the Sunni Morabitoun militia.
It has been so in Afghanistan, where the bin Laden-backed Taliban regime has committed massacres in Shiite communities and gone to the brink of war by killing eight diplomats and a journalist from Iran after finding them in an area it had captured from the Northern Alliance.
The US State Departments Counter-Terrorism Coordinator at the time, Philip C. Wilcox, Jr., called Ansar Allah a clandestine subgroup of Hizballah in testimony to a US House of Representatives committee. He alleged that in the 1994 AMIA attack the evidence points to Hizballah as the bomber. The operation was a virtual duplicate of the 1992 suicide bombing. He said that the evidence suggested a link between the ALAS bombing and the previous days attack in Argentina. He also concluded that it is likely that Iran was aware of and provided support to the two Buenos Aires bombings. He believe that Hizballah has not committed terrorist acts abroad without Iranian consent.
Actually, the historical record (always subject to revision) suggests that if Hizballah was responsible for the attacks in Argentina or Panama, these were its only strikes in the Western Hemisphere, and quite possibly its only attacks that did not at least partially take place in Lebanon or Israel.
One early Hizballah attack that began outside of the group’s usual zone of operations ended in Beirut. On June 14, 1985, a group of Lebanese men allegedly led by one Imad Mugniyah commandeered TWA flight 847, bound from Athens to Rome, and diverted it to Beirut.
In the course of that hijacking, US Navy Diver Robert Stethem was identified as an American serviceman, killed and thrown onto the airfield’s tarmac. When the Bush administration recently unveiled its list of Most Wanted Terrorists, three of the alleged TWA 847 hijackers were included.
Another mysterious communique suggested one more Hizballah tie to an attack far away from the Lebanese militias turf. On June 25, 1996 a gasoline tanker truck with an explosive charge attached parked near the Khobar Towers US military housing area in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and exploded. The blast killed 19 and wounded 386. An unverified claim of responsibility issued forth in the name of the previously unknown Hizballah-Gulf. Based largely on this, some American analysts concluded that this attack, too, was directed from Iran.
The Saudi government, however, did not accept this theory. They alleged that the Khobar Towers bombing was the work of the same group that set off a bomb at a Saudi National Guard training facility in Riyadh several months earlier. After that attack, which killed seven people, including five US military personnel, an obscure Islamic Movement for Change had claimed responsibility. However, the Saudis arrested, tried and executed four men for the Riyadh bombing. Very possibly under the duress of torture, the suspects confessed at their trial, and said that they were followers of Osama bin Laden.
US criminal charges for the Khobar Towers attack were not issued until 2001, and when they were they were not in line with Saudi thinking. The indictment named 13 Saudis and claimed the direction of an Iranian military officer. The FBI alleged that at least some of the attackers, whom it described as members of the pro-Iran Saudi Hizballah, had been trained in Lebanon. When the Bush administration announced the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list, four individuals suspected of a part in the Khobar Towers bombing were named, including Abdel Karim Hussein Mohamed al-Nasser, a Saudi whom the FBI described as the leader of Saudi Hizballah.
Now if Israel may have had reason to quickly and on scant evidence blame one of its principal enemies of the moment, Hizballah, for outrageous attacks, so, too, the Saudis may have had an overpowering reason to vilify their own public enemy number one, Mr. bin Laden. Like the bombings in Argentina and Panama, the Khobar Towers attack remains unsolved, with competing theories of the case having yet to be put to the test in a criminal court.
However, one way to look at string of attacks is by similarities in the methods of operation.
Typically, Hizballah attacks in Lebanon, or at least its actions start or end there. Typically, Hizballah proudly claims credit for attacks that it carries out, and names its suicide bombers, whom it celebrates as martyrs in media directed toward its followers. The AMIA attack and those in Riyadh and Panama did not fit either part of that pattern. The Dhahran attack and the one on the Israeli embassy in Argentina may have fit the pattern as to the claim of responsibility, but both were out of character as to the locus of the crime.
Now, however, let us consider several attacks attributed to Osama bin Ladens network, now known by the name of its Al-Qaeda (The Base, in Arabic) leadership umbrella. In the February 26, 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the August 7, 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Dar-es-Salaam and Nairobi, the October 10, 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, and the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States:
- There was no claim of responsibility that directly and unequivocally linked the act to a known group that did it; and
- In those attacks in which one or more of the perpetrators were killed, they were identified by investigating authorities or not at all, but in any case not by the responsible group itself.
The attacks in Panama, Argentina and Saudi Arabia would also fit into this pattern. Furthermore, the AMIA and ALAS bombing would also fit a bin Laden pattern of staging multiple international attacks at more or less the same time, a phenomenon also seen in the American embassy bombings in Africa and in the events of September 11.
However, these circumstances do not lead Panamanian attorney Walyd Sayed to the conclusions that some made, or others might. Jafar wasnt a religious fanatic, Sayed claims. He was a bodyguard.
Sayed, an activist who promotes the cause of Palestinian statehood as well as a lawyer, defended three Arab-Panamanian businessmen from Chiriqui who were arrested just after the ALAS bombing and held for a year and one-half before they were released for lack of evidence. He agrees with the assertion that there has never been a serious investigation of the Alas Chiricanas bombing. We Panamanians have become used to seeing crimes go uninvestigated, he noted.
However, Sayed believes that a thorough investigation of the Alas bombing will lead not to the worlds of Middle Eastern politics or militant Islam, but to the underworld of organized crime. He adds that the only connection that has been credibly shown in the AMIA bombing is to gangsters.
Sayed’s opinion about the Alas bombing is not restricted to a fringe of conspiracy theorists, nor to Arabs or Muslims in denial about the nature of political violence emanating from the Middle East. It is backed by certain bits of evidence, all of it as circumstantial—as circumstantial as that which supports the theories that the crime arose from political or religious passions. There are plenty of Panamanian journalists, lawyers and community leaders who share Sayed’s point of view, or who at least suspect that he may be right. The Public Ministry’s most recent pronouncement on the crime indicates that prosecutors, too, prefer the theory that the bombing was aimed at one passenger rather than at Jews in general.
Two main circumstances support the supposition that the Alas bombing arose from an underworld dispute rather than from politics and religion.
First, though there is the assumption that the Alas commuter flight was bombed due to somebodys enmity toward Jews, only a slight majority of those aboard—12 of 21—were in fact Jewish.
Second, one of the passengers who died, Colon Free Zone businessman Saul Schwartz, had been the subject of an Italian drug money laundering investigation and the target of kidnapping and assassination attempts. Thus there is the possibility that what happened over Santa Rita Ridge was a gangland hit against Schwartz, with the Colombian-style sicarios standard disregard for the lives of innocent bystanders.
Jafar’s role might cast doubt on this theory, because the suicide bomber is a feature of political violence in several parts of the world, but underworld hit men don’t act like that, in Colombia or elsewhere.
However, what if the bomb in Jafar’s briefcase was planted by someone else, without his knowledge and against his will? In that case, there would give the Alas attack some similarity to one of the most notorious of Colombia’s drug-related crimes, the November 27, 1989 bombing of an Avianca passenger jet over Bogota. In a CBS interview, former US ambassador to Colombia Morris Busby blamed the crime on the late Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar: As near as we were ever able to piece together, Busby claimed, it was a bombing to kill one particular individual on the airplane. The attack took the lives of all 107 people on board the plane.
According to Sayed, Saul Schwartz was accompanied by a phalanx of bodyguards wherever he went, with two teams hired through a security agency run by former Israeli Mossad and Shin Bet agents, one stationed in Colon, the other in Panama City.
There has also been speculation over the years that if the Alas bombing was a drug-related hit, Schwartz may not have been the target. Whether and to what extent the reputation is justified, the Colon Free Zone has been considered a hotbed of money laundering, where phony or inflated transactions cover the flow of racketeering proceeds into apparently legitimate businesses. As one Colon shipping industry executive said privately about the luxury homes that are replacing former slums in parts of the city at the canals Atlantic end, its all based on washed money.
That kind of statement will often draw an argument from the Free Zone’s defenders, who typically say that the duty-free import-export zones reputation for drug-related crime is mostly made in Miami. The purported slanderers are either those who want to gain a competitive advantage for Miamis free zone, or anti-Castro activists who object to the Cuban governments ability to shop in Colon for items that they are not allowed to buy from the United States.
However, there are a number of money laundering convictions in Panamanian, US and other nations courts arising from Colon Free Zone transactions, which would tend to negate claims that the bad reputation is a pure fabrication.
In any case, whatever might be true about the underlying realities, the reputation does exist.
Almost all of the passengers aboard the Alas flight, Jews and Gentiles, did business in the Free Zone. A thorough investigation would have to check into the possibility that any one of them, or any combination of them, might have been a participant in a deal gone sour with a shady character.
The posing of such a question can mean disaster for a family business. There need be no fault proven to force ruinous lawyer and CPA bills upon an import-export business being investigated for money laundering.
Moreover, the US Drug Enforcement Agency has a thuggish reputation in Panama. They or people working for them have kidnapped Panamanian citizens, extorted money from the families of suspects, bribed or blackmailed people to be witnesses, and on a number of occasions ruined the lives and fortunes of people who in the end turned out to be innocent.
Thus the survivors of a murder victim might well prefer to see the crime go unpunished if the alternative is a money laundering investigation of the family business.
Thus, in the wake of the Alas bombing, while the Panamanian chapter of Bnai Brith called for a full investigation, other influential voices within Panama’s Jewish community urged the families of the victims to avoid the urge to press for a probe that could bring on even more suffering. The case has remained open for years, with no discernable progress and no clamor for justice. The relatives of the dead do not want to talk about it. The subject is more or less taboo among Colons business community.
Meanwhile in Argentina, the AMIA and Israeli embassy bombing cases remain open and are being actively pursued. However, it is far from certain that they have been solved, or will be soon.
From the start, the Argentine investigations centered on the theory that a Hizballah cell assisted by the government of Iran was responsible for the 1992 and 1994 explosions. Iran and the Hizballah have always steadfastly denied this.
The trail has led investigators into the world of organized crime, and through military and police agencies that have had reputations for hardcore anti-Semitism dating back to the days when Juan Peron gave refuge to many Nazi fugitives. The many-faceted probe has not turned up the specific identities of the actual person or persons who planted and detonated the bombs. It has, however, led to two major trials, one just concluded and one recently begun.
In a trial that ended in September, the Fourth Circuit Court in Buenos Aires heard charges of illicit association and illegal explosives possession against 11 members of a military commando unit or their relatives. The illicit association charge alleged that the object of the conspiracy was to provide the explosives used in the AMIA bombing. All defendants were acquitted of illicit association, but three were convicted of possessing explosives. After the judgement was rendered former Sergeant Jorge Pacífico, one of those cleared of all charges, vowed to the Argentine daily Los Andes that now the other case begins—legal proceedings to punish federal judge Juan José Galeano, the investigating magistrate in the AMIA case. The three who were convicted on explosives charges were sentenced to three years on probation and community service.
On September 24, a few days after the first trial ended, 20 people, including the former chief of the Buenos Aires provincial police and several other ex-cops, began a trial that’s expected to last 10 months and involve more than 1,200 witnesses. These defendants, too, are accused of illicit association in connection with the AMIA bombing. None of them, however, are accused of any direct participation in the attack.
The current case began with a serial number from a piece of the engine of the van that was used in the bombing. The number did not match with other parts, and the confusing trail allegedly led back to a Punta del Este chop shop run by one Carlos Alberto Telleldin, where stolen motor vehicles were dismantled for sale as parts or re-assembly into composite vehicles whose origins would be hard to trace.
Telledin, an Argentine of Arab descent, reportedly has admitted that he was in the stolen car business, but denied that he was part of any bombing conspiracy, maintaining that he gave the van in question to police officers as part of the price of protection for his racket. The line of inquiry led to police chief Juan Jose Ribelli, and further investigation revealed that Ribellis family received $2.5 million the week before the AMIA bombing.
Ribelli says that he got the money from his father, who was retired on a modest pension from a lifetime at a relatively low-paying railroad job.
Not among the defendants are four Iranian diplomats, against whom Judge Galeano had issued arrest warrants that were subsequently quashed by Argentina’s Supreme Court for lack of evidence. Still, in a rare (and some would say improper) interview with the New York Jewish publication Forward, Galeano said that the trial would be just the beginning of the exposure of an Iranian and Hizballah plot. However, in the same interview the judge did not claim infallibility: “Of course I made mistakes, I had no experience in terrorism.”
Meanwhile, the investigation of the 1992 Israeli Embassy bombing continues, and the same Supreme Court that rejected Galeano’s AMIA bombing charges against the Iranian diplomats has issued a warrant for former Hizballah security chief Imad Mugniyeh in that case.
The Bush administration has also asked the Lebanese government to hand Mugniyeh over, for his alleged role in the 1985 hijacking of TWA 847 and the murder of Robert Stethem. The Beirut authorities have been unwilling or unable to detain and deliver Mugniyeh.
The slow progress of the AMIA and embassy bombing cases, and the alleged involvement of police officers and soldiers in those crimes, have prompted many an allegation of corruption and anti-Semitism against the Argentine government, particularly against the former administration headed by Carlos Menem, who is of Syrian descent. Menem, who is presently bogged down in an arms smuggling scandal that arose during his administration, has always denied wrongdoing and that he harbors any prejudices against Jews.
Here in Panama, not only is there no clamor for justice from the Jewish community as there is from its Argentine counterpart, there are no allegations that anti-Semitism is behind the governments failure to conduct a serious investigation of the ALAS bombing.
One reason for that may be that the ones who might have reason to make that sort of a charge would prefer to avoid re-opening an old wound.
However, another factor surely must be the amiable relationship between Panamas Jewish and Arab communities, within the Colon Free Zone and elsewhere.
Last year, the presidency of the Colon Free Zone Users Association, the group that represents the areas merchants, passed amicably from Nidal Waked to Shlomo Dayan. Jews and Arabs, some of the latter Israeli citizens, have been complementary pillars of the Free Zone establishment since its inception. Arabs and Sephardic Jews share the communal experience of having their Panamanian citizenship taken away during the first Arnulfo Arias administration. Zionism and the cause of Palestinian statehood both have their advocates here, but that has not caused significant tensions between Panamas Jewish and Arab communities.
It has sometimes even been suggested, not totally facetiously, that a good way to resolve the central dispute in the Middle East would be to submit it to the arbitration of the Free Zones Jewish and Arab business leaders.
Beside all of that, the bomb that went off in Mr. Jafar’s hands was not carried by a member of Panama’s Arab community. That package of death may have come from the international drug trafficking underworld, from a Lebanon-based Shiite fringe, or from Osama bin Laden’s Sunni fanatics. All governmental proclamations of Panama’s commitment to the fight against international terrorism notwithstanding, we are unlikely to ever know.
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