This Day in Jewish History

1994: Suicide Bomber Blows Up Jewish Center in Argentina, Killing 85

To this day the perpetrators and their senders remain shrouded, and the investigation staggers on, without Iran on board.

Rescue workers search for survivors and victims in the rubble left after a bomb destroyed the Buenos Aires headquarters of the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association, killing 85. July 18, 1994.
Enrique Marcarian, Reuters

July 18, 1994, is the date that a suicide terrorist drove a bomb-laden van into the headquarters of AMIA, the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, in Buenos Aires.

Beyond killing 85 people and wounding hundreds more, the attack was outrageous in several additional ways. For one, it was aimed at a non-political target, a Jewish communal organization that had an employment service and a library of rare Jewish books, among other things. There is no way it can be described as something other than anti-Semitic.

Second, it followed only a little more than two years after a similar attack, also a car bombing, on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, on March 17, 1992, which murdered 29 people. One might have thought that lessons had been learned in the interim.

Most disturbing is that today, both the embassy and the AMIA cases remain unresolved, and there has been ample evidence of official interference – including at the highest levels – in successive investigations of the latter.

Ironically, the Nazi-hunters were out

Founded in 1894, at the time of the 1994 attack, AMIA served a community of 250,000 Jews, the second-largest Jewish population in the Americas, after the United States. Its six-story building, at 633 Pasteur Street, in the Balovanera section of Buenos Aires, housed a century’s worth of historical archives of the country’s Jewish community, which was completely destroyed in the explosion.

It also served as the meeting-place of Project Witness, which was involved in investigating the topic of Argentine complicity with surviving Nazis following World War II. The Project Witness group normally met on Monday mornings, but this particular week its members were on vacation.

The bomb – 275 kilograms (606 lb) of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and TNT –  was carried by a Renault Trafic van. Not even the identity of the driver has been definitively determined, although a 2002 investigation by Argentina’s Intelligence Secretariat, and also, a decade later, Alberto Nisman, a special prosecutor who worked on the case until his suspicious death last year, concluded that he was Ibrahim Hussein Berro, a Lebanese citizen allegedly working for the Shi’ite militia group Hezbollah.

There were plenty of reasons for suspicion to fall on Iran, or one of the terror groups it backs. Among the indicted Iranians is former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, but Iran always refused to cooperate with any investigation.

A lengthy investigation by a federal judge, Juan Jose Galeano, came up with a supposed mastermind responsible for bombing, but those suspicions were dispelled in 2003, when a film surfaced of Galeano paying off the alleged perpetrator to take responsibility for the crime. Galeano himself was impeached in 2005.

'Truth commission'

When Nestor Kirchner became president of Argentina, in 2003, he admitted that the case had been botched, and he appointed Nisman, a dogged if slightly egomaniacal Jewish lawyer, as special prosecutor, in the hope he would finally crack the case. The support for Nisman initially continued when Kirchner’s wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, succeeded him, in 2007, after his death. 

In 2013, however, the still-open case took a bizarre turn, when Cristina Kirchner and her foreign minister, the Jewish Hector Timerman (son of the late journalist Jacobo Timerman), announced that they had reached an agreement with Iran to jointly sponsor a “truth commission” to investigate the AMIA bombing. American Jewish Committee president David Harris compared that idea to “turning to Nazi Germany to establish the facts of Kristallnacht.”

In any event, the understanding with Iran was ruled illegal by an Argentine court in 2014, and was finally dropped by Mauricio Macri when he became the country’s president late last year. In the meantime, however, Nisman, in early 2015, charged that Cristina Kirchner and Timerman had made a secret agreement with Iran to sell it Argentine grain in return for oil. This secret deal, he said, was behind their effort to “cover up” for Iran.

On January 18, 2015, the night before Nisman was to appear before the country’s parliament to explain his startling accusations, he was found shot to death in his Buenos Aires apartment. Authorities initially insisted that he had killed himself. His death is now being investigated as a homicide.

That’s roughly where the AMIA investigation stands today, 22 years later.