Chronicle of a Death Foretold: A Twenty Year History of Alberto Nisman’s “Suicide”

On February 26, Argentine federal judge Daniel Rafecas dismissed the criminal charges that had been pending against President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for the better part of a month. In the sixty-page decision Rafecas described the charges as having been “categorically and conclusively” contradicted and unable to “minimally hold up” to evidence.1

Kirchner was formally charged with conspiracy for attempting to cover up the involvement of Iranian officials in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. 2 The charges, also made against Argentina’s Foreign Minister Hector Timerman and politician Andres Larroque, largely echoed the accusations of former special prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was found dead in his apartment on January 18, the day before he was meant to testify before congress regarding his allegations against President Kirchner. Nisman’s apparent death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound is considered suspicious, and as of this writing the investigation is ongoing. 3

The most recent charges leveled at the nation’s sitting president highlighted the tension at the heart of Argentina’s legal system and its handling of the case. In the weeks since Nisman’s death was made public, thousands have taken to the streets in protest and President Kirchner devoted the majority of her nearly four-hour state of the union speech to dismissing allegations of a government conspiracy in the case.4 To fully understand why, one must first understand the twenty-year-long investigation and the political corruption that has primed the country to expect such developments in an apparently never-ending search for justice.

Attempting to succinctly summarize the two-decade-long investigation into the ‘94 bombing is, in a way, an exercise in futility. It follows a byzantine plot with threads that connect international terrorists, several Argentine presidential administrations, members of a myriad of foreign intelligence services, the Iranian nuclear program, and even Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio, now Pope Francis I. Witnesses have contradicted or recanted their previous testimony while others have  falsified evidence or claimed that prosecutors manipulated or misconstrued conversations to create an evidentiary basis for the government’s claims.

 

The Bombing

At 9:53 am on July 18, 1994 a Renault Trafic drove into the lobby of the Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires and detonated six hundred pounds of ammonium nitrate fuel oil. The pressure wave from the blast knocked out the exposed load-bearing walls, leading to the successive collapse of each of the upper floors. Besides the driver, eighty-five people were killed in the attack, and hundreds more were injured. The blast was in many ways similar to one that had destroyed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires two years earlier. To this day the AMIA attack remains the deadliest bombing in Argentina’s history. 5

On July 28, an intelligence report was submitted to Federal Judge Juan Jose Galeano, who had been appointed to lead the investigation into who had orchestrated the bombing. The report detailed surveillance of the Iranian cultural attaché to Argentina, Mohsen Rabbani, at a car dealership inspecting a white Renault Trafic similar to that used in the bombing. Despite the fact that the surveillance report was from more than a year before, Galeano quickly leaked the outline of the report to the daily newspaper, Clarin. This action would have profound consequences for the direction of the investigation over the next two decades.

 

The Special Prosecutor

By September 2004, President Cristina Kirchner’s predecessor and late husband Néstor Kirchner had appointed Alberto Nisman to lead the investigation. Nisman, a Jewish prosecutor, was selected as head of the Special Investigation Unit for the Prosecutor’s Office and tasked with taking up the threads of the decade-old investigation, which had already become mired in political corruption.

While Galeano’s previous investigation had focused on the local connections within Argentina, Nisman broadened the scope, investigating the international financiers and motivations behind the attack.

Nisman also had access to a host of information that was not made available to the initial inquiry thanks to President Néstor lifting a law that had prohibited officers within the Argentine security services, Secretaría de Inteligencia de Estado or SIDE, from providing testimony in the case. 6

Among SIDE’s files was an identification of the supposed bomber, who had not previously been publicly identified. This man was Ibrahim Hussein Berro, a 21-year-old Lebanese citizen whose family lived in Detroit.

In mid-September, Nisman traveled to Detroit to interview Berro’s brothers in the hopes of confirming Berro’s identity as the bomber. 7 Berro’s brothers confirmed that he had joined Hezbollah and that he had died in 1994. As Mr. Nisman described it, “The brother’s testimony was substantial, rich in detail and showed that he was the one who was killed.” 8

Unsatisfied with merely the identification of Berro as the bomber, Nisman wanted to know more, and set out to track the motivation, organization, and planning of the attack.

By the time Nisman released his formal indictment in 2006, Mohsen Rabbani, the cultural attaché, had grown into a figure “who was indisputably the leader of the regime of the mullahs in Argentina and perhaps its most representative member from an ideological standpoint.” 9 Nisman accused Rabbani of being an Iranian intelligence operative who had spent the better part of the decade since his arrival in Argentina developing “local clandestine intelligence stations designed to sponsor, foster and execute terrorist attacks.” 10

Using link analysis of the telecommunications system, the investigators isolated a collection of cell phones that arrived in the country in early July and contacted a single cell subscriber in Foz do Iguaçu, in Latin America’s notorious Triple Frontier, a lawless tri-border area often associated with narcotics trafficking. No call was made to the subscriber in Foz do Iguaçu before the beginning of July and the line had no activity after the AMIA bombing, according to the 2006 indictment. 11

Nisman believed that Argentina was targeted because the country had unilaterally canceled agreements for the transfer of nuclear technology that would have aided in the development of the Iranian Nuclear Program.12 The Iranian Atomic Energy Agency for its part continued to attempt to legally reconcile the canceled contract  well into 1996.

Nisman’s theories appear to have evolved out of what he perceived as clear parallels between the organization and planning of the AMIA attack and the ‘92 Israeli Embassy bombing. 13 Both attacks targeted prominent Jewish landmarks in Argentina and were apparently staged by devout Muslim populations in the border regions of the Triple Frontier.

Importantly, there is almost no ambiguity in who orchestrated the earlier bombing. Responsibility for the March 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy was claimed by a group calling themselves the Islamic Jihad Organization, or IJO. Islamic Jihad is widely believed to be a front group for members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force with close links to the Lebanese group Hezbollah. In fact, the link between IJO and Hezbollah is so widely accepted that many terrorism scholars, such as the University of Chicago’s own Robert Pape, have ceased to credit IJO in their records, attributing attacks claimed by Islamic Jihad to Hezbollah instead. 14

Proceeding from a position that assumed Iranian involvement, it was easy to see the similarities as a kind of signature to the attack, cementing the perception that the ‘92 Embassy bombing and the AMIA attack were related by a common perpetrator.

The evidentiary basis of the Nisman indictment has come under frequent criticism. Publically, its sources have been criticized for being heavily reliant upon information from members of the People’s Mujahidin of Iran (MEK) and the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an umbrella organization for Iranian opposition parties that has formed a nominal parliament in exile. 15

Importantly, Nisman’s indictment uses these opposition sources as the sole basis for its claims regarding the crucial planning meetings within the Iranian Regime. The indictment states in no uncertain terms that the decision to attack a second site in Argentina was made at a meeting in Mashad, Iran on August 14, 1993—a full four months after the incriminating surveillance video of Rabbani supposedly planning the bombing by looking to purchase the white van. 16 No explanation for how these sources would have knowledge of such a meeting is provided within the indictment.

The family of the alleged bomber, Ibrahim Berro, has taken issue with Nisman’s characterization of their testimony. They state that while their brother was certainly a member of Hezbollah, he died in Southern Lebanon several months after the bombing in 1994. Berro’s death was acknowledged at the time by several media stories in Lebanon. 17 For his part, Mr. Nisman dismissed such sources as propaganda meant to mask Hezbollah’s involvement in the suicide bombing. 18

Despite these critiques, it is hardly controversial in Argentina to claim that Iran was in some way complicit in the AMIA bombing. As early as 1999, the Argentine government issued international arrest warrants for Imad Mughniyeh, a senior Hezbollah operative, for his role in the two bombings. Mughniyeh was himself assassinated by a car bomb in Syria in 2008.

 

The Deal

The current controversy did not truly begin until 2011. According to Nisman’s indictment, on the eve of the Syrian Civil War, Argentine ministers supposedly met with Iranian officials in Aleppo.

The content of these supposed meetings forms the basis of the accusations currently leveled against President Kirchner: that she engaged in a criminal conspiracy to allow the Iranian agents charged in Mr. Nisman’s indictment to escape justice.19

In exchange, Iran would aid in the ongoing energy crisis in Argentina by granting it favorable trade status when trading Iranian oil for Argentine grains. 20

In January 2013, after nearly twenty years of halted foreign relations in which the Argentine delegation would not even sit through Iranian speeches at the United Nations, the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding to form a five judge panel to jointly investigate the AMIA attacks. 21 The signing of the MOU was widely seen as a surprising development and the constitutionality of the agreement has been challenged in Argentina’s courts by the local Jewish population. 22

The most recent charges against the president, based heavily on Nisman’s own complaint, allege that this memorandum was the central part of the conspiracy. The panel it created, the complaint claims, is meant to reach foregone conclusions as to the innocence of the Iranians, many of whom have achieved positions of prominence within the Iranian government, and to ultimately invalidate the Interpol warrants. 23

All of which would seem insane if it were not so immensely plausible, mainly because Argentina has a complicated history of political corruption in the investigation of the AMIA bombing.

Carlos Saúl Menem, the Argentine president at the time of the bombing, was accused of attempting to cover up potential leads in the case in a 2002 investigation by the New York Times, which identified a Swiss bank account in the president’s name containing more than $10 million. 24 The former president was accused by an Iranian defector of being an agent of the Iranian intelligence service who had played upon Menem’s Syrian heritage (both of his parents were Syrian nationals who emigrated from the region of Yabrud near the Lebanese border) to garner sympathy and aid in masking the involvement of the Islamic Republic.

Similarly, Federal Judge Galeano, the original chief investigator, was impeached after it was discovered that he had provided $400,000 in bribes to key witnesses in the case he had prepared. As a result the five main suspects, and all twenty-two co-conspirators, were found not guilty and the prosecution of those involved with the local connection collapsed.25

Both men were formally charged with obstructing the investigation by Mr. Nisman in 2012 and are currently awaiting trial alongside a number of ministers. 26 However as a sitting senator, Menem enjoys prosecutorial immunity and is unlikely to serve any jail time. 27

The government strongly denies these charges. Following the president’s indictment, Argentina’s treasury attorney-general submitted a sixty-five-page response to the allegations that summarized the indictment against the president as “a complex network of events—some of which were real, many of them hypothetical, and others clearly false in light of the evidence.” 28 It points out in part that there was no such energy crisis that would compel relations with Iran and that the former secretary general of Interpol, Ronald K. Noble, has provided evidence that Argentina has never wavered in its position to enforce the international arrest warrants.

 

The Suicide

Then, on January 19, mere hours before he was to appear before Argentina’s Congress to present his three hundred-page dossier outlining the alleged grains for oil conspiracy, Alberto Nisman was found dead, apparently locked in his thirteenth floor apartment. 29 Nisman was found on the floor of his bathroom next to a .22 caliber Bersa handgun, having suffered a fatal gunshot wound. Even the earliest accounts were skeptical that Nisman had killed himself, with several Argentine journalists stepping forward to comment upon Nisman’s state of mind. The prosecutor had made plans for the future and is even alleged to have told a reporter from Clarin less than a week before his death “I could be dead by the end of this,” though it is not clear in what context the comment was made. Members of the opposition party were more blunt, calling it an “assassination.”

Since Mr. Nisman’s body was discovered, a number of details have emerged in the case. A previously unaccounted for entrance to Nisman’s apartment was discovered to have been left unlocked. The gun was not his own but rather one that he had borrowed from an assistant two days prior to his death. Paraffin tests found no gunshot residue on Nisman’s hand. Foreign DNA was reportedly found at the scene and on February 3, a twenty-six-page draft of an arrest warrant for President Kirchner was discovered in the trash behind Nisman’s building. 30

After publicly claiming on her Facebook page that Nisman’s death was nothing more than an unfortunate suicide, Kirchner posted a message on her official government website stating her belief that Nisman had been murdered by rogue elements of the Secretariat of Intelligence who had manipulated Nisman and the investigation into filing accusations against government officials. 31 Kirchner published WhatsApp messages from Nisman’s phone and detailed accusations related to the case as well as a number of unsolved political “suicides.” In the following days Kirchner proposed legislation to disband SIDE and create a new federal intelligence agency in its place. 32 Nisman’s allegations against the president are purportedly based upon a two-year-long telephonic surveillance investigation of Kirchner and her cabinet that was conducted with the aid of SIDE. 33

Kirchner’s musings on a murder orchestrated by rogue intelligence operatives have a cultural relevance of their own. During the years of Argentina’s military dictatorship from roughly 1976 to 1983, the intelligence service operated a number of prison camps in Buenos Aires where political prisoners were disappeared. Some of these men would even go on to work directly with the AMIA bombing, including Hector Vergez, a former director of the infamous La Perla death camp. Vergez was accused of paying off witnesses to identify two Lebanese suspects in the aftermath of the bombing, directing attention away from any Argentines. Vergez admitted to receiving $2 million from SIDE to “help the case develop.” 34 SIDE’s roots in Argentina’s Dirty War and the deaths of hundreds from that period that lack official explanation leave many weary about the agency and any role it may have played in Nisman’s death. 35

If the twenty-year investigation into the AMIA bombing highlights anything, it is that we are unlikely to ever learn a definitive answer to who killed Alberto Nisman—even if further investigation results in a positive identification of who pulled the trigger. Regardless of the outcome, some will refuse to believe it.

 

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