Argentina’s government yesterday announced it was dissolving the Secretariat of Intelligence (S.I.), an intelligence agency tainted by the “Dirty War” regimes (1974-83), and more recent abuses as President Cristina Kirchner has taken Argentina back toward autocracy, and replacing it with a Federal agency. Just two days before, charges of corruption were levelled against Antonio Stiusso, S.I.’s director until Kirchner fired him in December. At the beginning of this month, Stiusso went missing. It now seems Stiusso has taken shelter in a neighbouring State.
These events are the latest twist in an extraordinary saga that has followed the discovery of the body of Alberto Nisman on Jan. 18 in his apartment in Buenos Aires, shot in the head in an apparent suicide. Nisman was a prosecutor investigating the July 18, 1994, bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building in Argentina’s capital. All the evidence that Nisman had gathered pointed to Iran as the perpetrator. Few believe Nisman committed suicide, and—the history of Argentines being “suicided” considered—most fingers are pointing at Iran.
Matthew Levitt’s book, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, is the indispensable source here, the most complete picture we have of the Hizballah as a global terrorist network and appendage of the Iranian State.
Mohsen Rabbani, the leader at al-Tawhid mosque in Floresta and a representative of Iran’s Agriculture Ministry, was the “primary architect” of the AMIA bombing. Using sympathisers among the Muslim population as “antennas,” cultural centres as recruiting grounds, front-companies to provide cover-jobs for operatives, and organising the entire operation—explosives and all—out of Iran’s Embassy in Argentina, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry (VEVAK), Foreign Ministry, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), specifically its foreign operations unit, the Quds Force (IRGC-QF), charged with exporting Iran’s Islamic Revolution, of which Hizballah is effectively the Lebanese branch, orchestrated a bombing that murdered eighty-five people.
The Tri-Border Area (TBA) between Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina is eight-hundred miles north of Buenos Aires. They key town is Ciudad del Este, formerly within Paraguay, which is basically an international version of the Star Wars bar scene—a centre of criminality for counterfeiting, trafficking in drugs, weapons, and people, and a haven for outlaws and terrorists of all stripes. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Iran infiltrated the Arab and Iranian communities in the TBA, and Hizballah now has a support network in the TBA worth millions of dollars. The Lebanese suicide bomber in the AMIA attack, Ibrahim Berro, was brought into Argentina through the TBA, quite possibly personally escorted by the Hizballah’s grisly military commander Imad Mughniyeh (d. 2008), who “simultaneously [held] a formal commission in the IRGC.” Mughniyeh was, before 9/11, responsible for killing the most Americans with terrorism.
AMIA was the second attack in Buenos Aires: a suicide bomber in a truck had blown himself up outside the Israeli Embassy in the city on March 17, 1992, massacring twenty-nine civilians—twenty-five of them Argentines. AMIA would not be the last attack in the Western Hemisphere. The next day, July 19, 1994, an internal Panamanian flight, Alas Chiricanas Flight 901 from Colón to Panama City, blew up, murdering all twenty-one people on board, twelve of them Jews, four Israelis and three Americans. It is believed this was done via a suicide bomber. On July 26, 1994, a car bomb blew up outside the Israeli Embassy in London, thankfully not killing anybody but injuring twenty. The FBI believes that Hizballah, which vowed an “open-ended war … until Israel is wiped out of existence,” perpetrated all these attacks.
The question is why. The common reason given for the 1992 attack is that it was a response to Israel cutting down Hizballah’s then-General Secretary Abbas Mussawi on Feb. 16, 1992. But “Iran had decided to carry out an operation in Argentina well before Musawi was killed,” Levitt notes. Rabbani—who was intimately involved in the 1992 attack as well—had been in Iran from January to December 1991. On Dec. 11, 1991, just five days after Rabbani returned to Argentina, Buenos Aires announced that it was suspending the shipment of nuclear materials to Iran because of “concrete indications that Iran had non-peaceful plans for its nuclear capacities“. Then-Argentine President Carlos Menem would go on to terminate the shipment of all nuclear technology to Iran, and halt the training of Iranian technicians by Argentina. The Mussawi excuse was for Hizballah’s supporters; this operation was to further Tehran’s interests by punishing Argentina and trying to change her policy.
It was a similar story for the AMIA bombing. Hizballah would publicly link the attack with the May 22, 1994, capture of Mustafa Dirani, but Rabbani had begun searching for the van that would be used in the AMIA attack in May 1993—a full year before Dirani’s capture. Rabbani flew to Iran for a meeting in Mashad on Aug. 14, 1993, where he provided to Iran’s leadership a list of targets. The meeting was attended by inter alia Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, then-president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Iran’s current president, the “moderate” Hassan Rowhani, who “participated in the decision” to massacre Argentine Jewry. Having selected AMIA, Khamenei issued a fatwa “sanctifying the operation as a sacred duty aimed at exporting the revolution.”
As to why Iran hit Jewish targets when the message was for the Argentine government, this is a common occurrence. In the long history of Middle Eastern State-terrorism in foreign capitals, the killers outwardly—and often inwardly—have a cause in mind, and, in the case of the Hizballah jihadists, the war with global Jewry and their conspiracy against Islam is a pretty good motivator. Terrorist attacks, however, do not always further the aims of those who carry them out, who often cannot see the big picture—and indeed who are often actively misinformed about who they are working for, the effects of their attack, and whose caused they will further. AMIA didn’t harm Hizballah’s interests, but nor was it intended to further them in the Lebanese context many of Hizballah’s supporters believe the group acts in. It is quite possible Hizballah’s suicide bombers believed they were on a revenge missions; certainly it doesn’t seem that either knew they were delivering a shot across Buenos Aires’ bow because of its nuclear policy vis-à-vis Iran. A strike against Jewish targets in Argentina was convenient, it was no doubt satisfying for Iran’s antisemitic regime, and it told Buenos Aires that “next time it might be a community Argentines really care about“. Assuming that it is Iran that has followed this up by killing Nisman, it underscores how central an interest the nuclear-weapons program is to the Iranian regime’s existence. While the diplomacy runs out the clock in Geneva, Iran is still settling accounts from two-decades ago with those who might have thwarted its long march to a nuclear bomb.
On Jan. 15, 2015, Nisman submitted a 289-page Federal criminal complaint saying that the Argentine government had conspired to cover up Iran’s role in the AMIA bombing in return for cheap oil from. Nisman directly named President Kirchner and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman as accomplices in this cover-up.
In 2013, after Argentina had repeatedly stalled and bungled the AMIA investigation, Buenos Aires set up a joint commission with Iran to investigate the attack, which was declared unconstitutional that May. Nisman was in no doubt that this was an attempt to whitewash Tehran’s role:
[Nisman] said the effort seemed to begin with a secret meeting in Aleppo, Syria, in January 2011 between Héctor Timerman, Argentina’s foreign minister, and Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s former foreign minister. At the meeting, the complaint contends, Mr. Timerman informed his Iranian counterpart that Argentina was no longer interested in supporting the investigation into Iran’s possible role in the attack.
Kirchner responded by saying that Stiusso had tricked Nisman into believing that Kirchner conspired to conceal Iran’s role in the AMIA bombing in exchange for an oil deal, and that Stiusso/S.I. got Nisman to name Kirchner in this conspiracy, and then bumped him off in order to frame her and destabilise her government. Kirchner first accused the intelligence services of murder by innuendo, formally maintaining that Nisman had committed suicide, whilst also letting it be known that “Nisman’s death may have been linked to a struggle within the state intelligence services,” before coming right out with it—via Facebook and Twitter, of course. “Mr. Nisman’s accusations were not the true attack on the government,” Kirchner wrote, “The true attack … was the prosecutor’s death after he accused the president”. As Jorge Asis, a novelist and former culture secretary, noted, “The President is talking more as if she were a crime fiction novelist than a Head of State.”
Whatever the truth of Nisman’s death, there is no doubt about the 1992 bombing nor the 1994 follow-on attacks, nor Iran’s wider record of subversion and global terrorism. And this still matters because the Obama administration has set a very dangerous course—from Iraq to Syria to Yemen and Afghanistan—that seeks to make Iran an American partner in stability and counter-terrorism. This is a tragically misguided policy.
In Syria, Iran has orchestrated a full-scale jihad, moving thousands of globally-focussed Shi’ite jihadist terrorists into the country to fight for Bashar al-Assad. The Shi’ite forces are led and organised by Iran’s Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and Hizballah. Though both IRGC-QF and Hizballah had been in Syria since the very start of the uprising, Hizballah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah would formally announce their presence in May 2013, leading a surge of Sunni foreign fighters entering Syria—sectarianism always guarantees counter-sectarianism.
The IRGC-QF and Hizballah do not do the occupation work for the Assad regime but are, rather, the “sharp tip of a pro-Assad spear.” The “hold” part is done largely by Shi’ite militias from Iraq, but there are many Shi’a foreign fighters from Afghanistan and some from as far away as Somalia and the Ivory Coast. There is certainly financial support, and likely some recruits, from North America, India, Pakistan, and the Gulf, specifically Yemen with the Houthis.
These Iranian-commanded Shi’ite jihadists are currently leading the Assad regime’s two main offensives, in Aleppo and in Deraa/Quneitra, where Iran is trying to establish a colony on Israel’s border in the Golan, as Iran has already done in Lebanon. Despite the fact that the Shi’a jihadists in Aleppo are using child-soldiers and openly say they’re doing jihad, this hasn’t caught on in the reporting as a direct counterpart to the barbarism and fanaticism of the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda.
Iran’s Shi’ite jihad is being funded by Hizballah’s support networks in Africa, specifically Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal—the lead African fundraisers for Hizballah—and Sierra Leone, Hizballah’s operational base courtesy of collaboration with former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and his blood-diamond trade. Hizballah uses religious and national appeals to raise funds from the “African Lebanese”. When that doesn’t work Hizballah imposes ISIS-style Mafia extortion “taxes,” threatening both the inhabitants in West Africa and family members back home in Lebanon, securing the acquiescence even of those who are not ideologically sympathetic but just wish to be left alone.
A growing threat is in Nigeria, where maybe four million people adhere to Iran’s State ideology, veleyat-e faqih (a.k.a. “Khomeini’ism”), providing intelligence and helping Iran’s/Hizballah’s drugs and weapons smuggling. Ibrahim al-Zakzaky, formerly the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Nigeria, is now Iran’s most public advocate and “an extension of Iranian foreign policy“. Showing Nigeria’s ongoing role in Iran’s global terrorist network, just yesterday, the U.S. Treasury designated three Hizballah agents—fundraiser Mustapha Fawaz, military recruiter Fouzi Fawaz, and operative Abdallah Tahini—as well as several front-companies.
In addition to blood-diamonds and Mafia-style shakedowns of local communities, Hizballah gains considerable funds from front-companies, such as retail stores and import companies from The Gambia to the Congo and Angola, and increasingly drugs shipped from friendly Latin American States like Venezuela. The networks supporting this extend into Central Africa, to Sudan and Uganda, and also into East Africa, notably Somalia, but also Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania.
During the American regency in Iraq, Iran worked tirelessly to bloody and expel American forces and Iran was more than equal to the sectarian gauntlet thrown down by then-al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM), now ISIS. Iran was also fully ISIS’ equal in its cruelty toward any Iraqis who wanted a democratic transformation of their country.
Iran’s longest-standing Iraqi proxy is the Badr Corp, currently led by Hadi al-Amiri, which fought with Iran against Saddam Hussein throughout the 1980s and carried out sporadic terrorism against Saddam through the 1990s. Badr was on the ground after the fall of Saddam in April 2003. On Feb. 16, Nasrallah announced that Hizballah had a “limited presence” in Iraq, but the truth is that Iran ordered Hizballah into Iraq immediately after Saddam’s fall, where they formed Unit 3800, which worked alongside IRGC-QF’s Department 1000 (or Ramadan Corps) that was already in Iraq, to expand, train, and equip “Special Groups” or Shi’ite militias that killed hundreds of Western soldiers.
In addition to Badr (a direct proxy), by August 2003, Iran, through Hizballah, had connected with Muqtada Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM). Over time, Iran would pull away splinters of Sadr’s organisation, creating Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and Kataib Hizballah (KH). Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a long-time Iranian agent, was appointed to lead KH. Muhandis had been the leader of the Badr Corp in the 1990s, before giving way to Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani, who in turn gave way to Amiri. During the Iraq War, Sheibani ran the networks bringing the infamous explosively-formed penetrators (EFPs) from Iran to the “Special Groups”. AAH’s leader, Qais al-Khazali, worked directly with Unit 3800’s director Ali Musa Daqduq, a Lebanese Hizballah member and “surrogate” for the IRGC-QF.
Before Sadr formally demobilised JAM in August 2008, there were other smaller Sadrist splinters, including one led by Ismail Hafiz al-Lami (a.k.a. Abu Dura or the “Shi’ite Zarqawi“), whose death squad activities in Baghdad even the Shi’ite militias distanced themselves from. JAM downsized and rebranded as Liwa al-Youm al-Mawud (LYM, the Promised Day Brigades) in November 2008. Sadr reportedly left Iraq in early 2007 and seems to have returned in March 2014. LYM has fallen under greater Iranian sway than JAM, contributing to the Shi’ite jihad in Syria despite Sadr’s opposition to that campaign. In June 2014, Sadr raised Saraya al-Salaam (the Peace Brigades), a militia of up to 40,000 men, ostensibly to assist the government’s anti-ISIS fight. On Feb. 17, Sadr ordered both these forces to stand down, possibly to test who they answer to.
Iran’s responsibility for this cannot be denied: as in Syria now, where Iraqi Shi’ite militiamen go first to Iran and thence to Syria—and back the same way if they are killed—the Iraqi Shi’ites “made their way to Tehran,” where some were trained but others “caught flights to Syria and travelled overland from Damascus International Airport … across the Lebanese border” to Hizballah training camps. (Interestingly, while Assad was facilitating Shi’ite jihadism through Damascus International Airport, the very same airport was also facilitating what it now ISIS.)
It important to note that “[w]hat appears to be atomization within the ranks is instead more reminiscent of cell replication,” and Iran was consolidating a “sectarian deep state” in Iraq right under the nose of the Americans that was playing into the fears ISIS was using to stoke Sunni rejectionism of the new order. When ISIS succeeded in triggering a sectarian civil war in February 2006, Iran’s tributaries led the Shi’ite side, cleansing whole areas of Baghdad of Sunnis. Amiri was particularly fond of taking power drills to the skulls of his enemies. ISIS has gotten a lot of coverage recently for throwing half-a-dozen people it claims were homosexuals from rooftops. Less known is the wave of anti-homosexual killings by JAM and Badr from 2009 onward that murdered hundreds of people using methods that are nearly beyond description (“[the Shi’ite militias] used on him … a very strong glue to close his anus, after which he was given a laxative causing diarrhea that killed him,” one survivor told Human Rights Watch.)
Iran’s proxy network went well beyond Iraq. Mahdi Army fighters, some of whom would become AAH, fought with the Hizballah in the July 2006 war with Israel. AAH’s liaison with IRGC-QF was Abdul Reza Shahlai, who directs external operations, including the 2011 attempt to blow up the Saudi ambassador in Washington. AAH is connected to “a large global network controlled by Khamenei.” Iran’s intervention in Syria and consolidation of control of Iraq’s security sector has made its “Resistance Axis” “more integrated and capable” all across the region.
Iran’s apologists will make the argument that al-Hashd al-Shabi (the Popular Mobilization) is a reaction to ISIS invasion of Iraq and is largely not composed of Khomeini’ists but of Shi’ites who responded to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s June 13 fatwa—an edict that explicitly said volunteers were to join Iraqi State security forces, a part of Sistani’s “assiduous efforts to thwart Iran’s penetration of Iraq“—which means these groups cannot be servants of Iran. Since Badr and Hizballah were created in the 1980s, it is difficult to argue that Iran’s strategy, working through them, is something reactive to last summer. It is, however, true that most Iraqi Shi’ites who volunteered are not consciously fighting to help Iran. It also doesn’t matter.
As Phillip Smyth explained in his recent monograph on Iran’s proxy groups, Iran can expand its power even through groups whose membership is not ideologically aligned with veleyat-e faqih—indeed through groups that are, at least in theory, hostile to that ideology.
In Iraq, in late December, a video emerged showing the creation of a Christian militia, Kataib Rouh Allah Issa Ibn Miriam (The Brigade of the Spirit of God Jesus Son of Mary), under the auspices of Kataib al-Imam Ali (KAI), an Iranian proxy. If KAI’s Khomeini’ist vision was realised, it would reduce Christians to dhimmis. Nonetheless, “the spread of so-called ‘resistance’ model groups” such as this, Smyth notes, “even without an absolute loyalty to Iran’s Supreme Leader, represents a major strategic victory for Tehran and its proxies”.
Add to that Iran’s relentless propaganda campaign—which began in Syria—to present itself as the defender of Shi’ites (and, when convenient, other minorities) against the takfiris, which has included co-opting Sistani’s image and confusing Shi’ites about what the marja actually thinks about Iran’s conduct, plus simple resources, and Iran has already constructed an infrastructure in Iraq that, put simply, has robbed Iraq of her sovereignty.
Iran’s imperial ambitions in Syria and Iraq are being abetted by the Obama administration, which sees Iran as a partner against ISIS. Efforts have been made to work with Iran before. In Bosnia, the Clinton administration green-lighted Iran’s shipment of more than $200m-worth of war material, including fourteen-thousand tons of weapons, to the Bošniaks during the 1992-5 War. Many foreign Salafi mujahideen had entered Bosnia during the war and set up terrorist training camps; Iran took over some of them and opened many more. In mid-1995, after the Srebrenica massacre, when the U.S. intervened in Bosnia and was preparing to put troops on the ground, it was decided to set up a CIA station.
H.K. Roy (a pseudonym) was sent to be station chief, intending to liaise with the Bosnian government. Instead, Roy found that Bosnia’s Interior Ministry was under Iranian control and the deputy of the Bosnian secret service, later renamed the Agency for Investigation and Documentation (AID), Nedžad Ugljen, who had also founded the Ševe (Larks), was an Iranian agent, and Tehran had no intention of helping the Americans. Roy narrowly escaped the country after the Iranians planned to kidnap, torture and kill him. As Roy would later note, there was nothing personal in this: “It’s not every day that a lone CIA officer shows up and declares his true name to a security service controlled by Iran.”
As former NSA officer John Schindler noted in his book on Bosnia, the Americans found that while it “had been easy to let the Iranians [in,] … getting them out was another matter entirely.” Iran carried out a wave of assassinations that killed dissidents in Europe and anybody who happened to be standing near them, including daring operations in Vienna and Berlin, before it had a base of operations in the Balkans. This is a lesson that is worth bearing in mind when considering Iraq and Syria, where Iran has embedded itself much more deeply than in Bosnia on NATO’s doorstep.
Iran’s messaging portrays ISIS as a Jewish-American plot against the Shi’a. On Wednesday it was reported that KH now has anti-aircraft weapons to stop any logistical support getting to ISIS. Endless statements from Iranian-aligned politicos in Baghdad say America has dropped supplies to ISIS (not helped when a package actually did go astray last October). In other words, this is a threat to the U.S.-led Coalition that its planes will be brought down if they displease Iran. How serious that threat is time will tell but Iran will surely help its tributaries if they try to solve their ISIS problem at source by attacking the West.
What Bosnia shows is that the idea of Iran as a foe of Salafi jihadist terrorism is a fallacy; Iran works with Shi’ites and Sunnis if they hate the West enough. Iran has supported al-Qaeda dating back to 1991 or 1992 when they struck a deal where Iran would provide training to al-Qaeda through the Hizballah—there was even a meeting between Mughniyeh and Osama bin Laden to seal this arrangement. Iran supported Ayman az-Zawahiri in Bosnia. Iran has had an operational connection with al-Qaeda since at least 1996 when they jointly massacred the American soldiers at Khobar Towers. Iran consciously deepened this relationship as al-Qaeda got more lethal, after the 1998 African Embassy bombings and the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole.
Iran’s role in facilitating the formation of ISIS is a matter of public record, as is Iran’s direct support to ISIS as it fought to prevent America midwifing a constitutional order in Mesopotamia—Iranian agents were found in possession of “phone numbers affiliated with Sunni bad guys,” for example. Whether or not Iran has continued to support ISIS in Syria, as the rebellion alleges, as part of the Iran/Assad provocation to radicalise the insurgency and present Assad as the least-bad option, the conclusion of former White House staffer Michael Doran is unassailable: “When all is said and done, Iran and Syria have played a far more pernicious role in the rise of ISIS than have the Gulf monarchies.”
To destroy ISIS’ Takfiri Caliphate, the West needs moderate Sunni allies. That cannot happen if the Sunnis are convinced that if they remove ISIS, Iranian-backed sectarian autocracies—which sparked the Sunni uprisings in the first place—will fill the void. Iran’s working through vicious sectarian proxies heightens the polarisation that is extremely helpful to ISIS. That Iran’s proxies also have Western blood on their hands strengthens the case for the U.S. not providing them an air force.
Moreover, unlike the West, Iran’s interests are in weak neighbouring States that pose no threat to it, and the instability of ISIS is helpful to that end—it gives Shi’a politicians in Baghdad and Alawites in Damascus little choice but to acquiesce in the Iranian colonisation of their countries when the alternative is extermination. This means Iran has little interest to want to see ISIS gone, at least in the short-term: it is under the cover of this war Iran can consolidate control of its Jihadist Empire.
Add to that that Iran will actually support Sunni militancy when it finds it convenient to its ultimate ambition to “push the United States out” of the Middle East, and the argument for Iran as a partner in pacifying the Fertile Crescent and combatting terrorism falls apart.
Nisman’s work came from a time when it was understood that the Islamic Republic of Iran was irretrievably hostile to the West and was working across the globe against the Free World’s interests. His death is a good occasion for a reminder that the Islamic Republic has not changed.