With the recent panic over the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks in Paris and its implications for the future of free speech in the Western world — in addition to the safety of Jews in Europe — UCLA students have done little to discuss other atrocities in the world. Among these number the 2000 Nigerians killed in a recent Boko Haram attack and the mysterious death of Alberto Nisman, an Argentine prosecutor who was researching the 1994 bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina Jewish Center in Buenos Aires, which took the lives of 85 individuals.
Experts call the 1994 AMIA bombing “the deadliest terrorist attack in Argentine history and one of the worst incidents of anti-Jewish violence in the Diaspora since World War II.” But strangely, no significant arrests were made. That is, until Nisman agreed to take the case, under the condition that he be allowed to “follow the leads and take the investigation wherever the evidence trail led.” Unfortunately, the trail led to a bullet in the side of his head.
Originally, officials pronounced Nisman’s death — which occurred the night before his presentation on the results of his investigation to the Argentine government — a suicide. However, Nisman’s presentation would have implicated Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in a scam to cover up Tehran’s role in the AMIA bombing in exchange for oil shipments to Argentina. Accordingly, Nisman’s death appears to be anything but a suicide. With the emergence of overwhelming evidence that he did not in fact kill himself, President Kirchner partially redacted her statement that he did. In Argentina, mass protests are currently taking place as citizens rally against Nisman’s untimely death and question the true nature of their government’s involvement therein. Free speech and religious freedom are again under fire.
In order to share her expert analysis of the situation and what it means for the future of the United States’ involvement with Iran, Toby Dershowitz, Vice President of Government Relations and Strategy for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has afforded Ha’Am an exclusive interview.
How did you know Alberto Nisman?
Alberto came to Washington periodically to brief US officials and the counterterrorism community on his investigation into the AMIA bombing because it had implications for US national security and indeed, implications for the entire Western Hemisphere.
Having known him, would you suspect him of suicide the night before his presentation to Congress?
Alberto’s life was threatened many times and yet, he was fearless and determined to professionally carry out the assignment he was asked to undertake by his government. He was aware of the risks to his life and indeed to that of his family and had filed official complaints to the authorities about some of the more serious threats. He was hard at work preparing for his presentation to Congress in a matter of hours. Alberto was strong-willed and courageous. No, Alberto would not take his own life. I’d look to the oddities that surround his security — that the security cameras in his upscale building apparently were not working… That his guards were not on his floor… That his guards did not report that they could not reach him for many hours. And a host of other suspicious items.
Do you know how he became involved in investigating the bombing of the AMIA Jewish center, and how he acquired his reputation in Argentina as one of its top prosecutors?
Alberto was not the first prosecutor assigned to the case. The previous investigator assigned to the case was impeached for “serious irregularities.” Moreover, a former president of Argentina, Carlos Menem, was indicted for allegedly tampering with evidence in the case. Alberto was well aware of the corrupt environment in which he was operating. Alberto told me that when he was asked to take on the investigation, he agreed to do so under one condition: that he be allowed to follow the evidence wherever it led, no matter what.
Do you know why he chose to look into the AMIA bombing? Was it a personal motivation?
He was asked to do so by the former president of Argentina.
What do you think this will mean for Argentina, in light of the protests, lack of evidence for a suicide, and general feelings of unrest?
This case has angered hundreds of thousands of people in Argentina. People rallying in the streets in front of the Casa Rosada and throughout the country carried signs that say “Yo soy Nisman” [“I am Nisman”]. Other indicators point to a deepening mistrust of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her government’s role in Nisman’s suspected murder. Moreover, the case may well be a tipping point that will force the government to have to answer questions not only about whether it sought to absolve Iran of its role in the country’s worst terrorist attack, but in a slew of other illicit activities.
In light of President Kirchner’s changing story as to the cause of Nisman’s death, and her refusal to send Nisman to DC, what do you think of the state of the Argentinian government? Can it be trusted to handle this investigation?
It remains unclear whether Argentina will conduct a fair investigation into Nisman’s suspicious death absent international oversight. Those involved in his death wanted to silence him and to send a message to others — perhaps his colleagues who worked with him – that they may face the same fate. They and more than one million pages of evidence must be protected.
The world’s media and those who care about justice for victims of Iranian-backed terrorism, whether in Argentina or elsewhere, must not take the spotlight off this case until all the wiretap-based evidence Nisman had is thoroughly reviewed and an impartial investigation of Nisman’s death is concluded. In addition, it’s important to focus on what Nisman’s job was and what his findings were: that the AMIA bombing was planned at the highest levels of the Iranian government. Finding Nisman’s evidence compelling, Interpol issued “red notices” for five Iranians and there are arrest warrants out for two other high-ranking officials. Several of these Iranians continue to play important roles in Iran’s policy-making today as I noted in this piece one year ago.
What do you think will happen with the case, now that Nisman is dead?
There are good people in Argentina who want to learn how Nisman died and who was behind his death. The government has lost a great deal of credibility because of how it has handled this case, with President Kirchner’s erratic behavior especially noteworthy. Many suspect Nisman’s death was part of the plot to silence him and to send a warning to anyone who might have come forward to support Nisman’s allegations. Several individuals with knowledge of aspects of the case have fled the country in fear. At least one said he was threatened. Regrettably, Argentina still has not been able to address the rampant corruption that has plagued its government. It would be a tragedy for Argentina if this were yet one more case that was left unresolved because those wishing to cover up evidence pointing to improper or even potentially criminal behavior at the highest levels of government had the last word.
It’s unclear whether in this environment anyone President Kirchner appoints to replace Nisman will be truly independent, as Nisman was. But his work need not end. His investigation led to arrest warrants and red notices by Interpol. These should be actively pursued and those implicated should not be permitted to have a seat at any negotiating table.
In your article, you mention that the US should use Nisman’s investigation as a playbook for how to deal with Iran. Can you elaborate on how you think the US could achieve this?
In his most recent complaint — the one he was due to present to the Argentine Congress the day after he was found dead — Nisman outlined how the Iranian government sought to absolve itself of culpability in the AMIA case not just once but repeatedly. Nisman provided important context for his allegations from material in the public domain. Nisman pieced together the public record along with information gleaned from wiretaps he had access to as part of the investigation into the AMIA bombing. His report has been translated into English and is well worth reading for those who want to gain insight into how Iran reportedly sought to whitewash its role in the terrorist attack.
Moreover, Loretta Lynch, who is nominated to become the next attorney general, has the opportunity to review the case with an eye toward ensuring that even if politically inconvenient, the Department of Justice helps pursue those with Interpol red notices and Argentine arrest warrants. Interestingly, Lynch knew Nisman through their work together involving a foiled plot to blow up New York’s JFK International Airport. One of the Iranian officials implicated in the AMIA bombing in 1994 was the Iranian handler for the perpetrators of the 2007 JFK airport plot and who are now serving life sentences. Nisman connected these dots. The perpetrators said their goal was to blow up the fuel lines at the airport and to make the attack on 9/11 look small in comparison.
What do you think are the implications (psychological or otherwise) of Nisman’s death for the Jewish community in Argentina?
Some see Nisman as the 86th victim of the AMIA bombing, coming 21 years after the first 85 people were killed. It would be understandable if the suspicious circumstances of Nisman’s death shattered their confidence in this government and its ability to protect its own population. Moreover, this may strengthen their belief that Iran indeed was behind the 1994 bombing, as Nisman’s evidence demonstrates.
Is there anything that you would say to college students who are following the investigations of his death and would like to ensure that his research continues so that he did not die in vain?
Read Nisman’s work. Much of it has been translated into English. And decide for yourself if he was being true to his commitment to follow the evidence wherever it led. Others who came before him succumbed to corruption. Alberto resisted even under threats to his life. He was willing to stand up for the truth, even if it cost him his life. It seems it did. We ought not let his truths die with him.