WASHINGTON — The Lebanon-based, Iran-backed Hizballah is now the major international terrorist group active in Latin America, a senior State Department official told Congress.
Coordinator for Counterterrorism Philip Wilcox Jr. testified Sept. 28 to the House Committee on International Relations, warning lawmakers that two bombings and other actions over the last three years point to Teheran as Hizballah’s chief supporter.
He described Hizballah’s recent actions in the region, particularly the bombing of the AMIA Jewish Cultural Center in Buenos Aires in 1994 and of the Israeli Embassy in that city in 1992, and said: “It is likely that Iran was aware of and provided support to the two Buenos Aires bombings.”
Wilcox also outlined the recent record of terrorist activity by other groups in Latin America, and said that promotion of consultation and cooperation among law enforcement, intelligence and diplomatic security services of hemispheric states has been one of the Clinton administration’s foremost counterterrorism goals during the past year.
Following is the text of Wilcox’s prepared testimony: Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee: I appreciate this opportunity to testify on the subject of terrorism in Latin America and the bombing of the AMIA Jewish Cultural Center in Buenos Aires on July 18, 1994. These subjects are of great concern to the United States, and we have intensified our focus on terrorism in Latin America and the need to bring the bombers of the AMIA center to justice.
The tragic bombing of the AMIA building, the almost identical bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992, the bombing of the World Trade Center, and the related plot to blow up various public, areas and government facilities in New York which is now before a federal court, brought home to us the truth that our hemisphere is also vulnerable to international terrorism.
The perpetrators of these savage crimes are or are believed to be extremists who abuse the Islamic faith in whose name they claim to act. Dedicated to the destruction of the Arab-Israeli peace process and the State of Israel, these groups are also steeped in hatred of the West and its culture. Their pursuit of terrorism in our hemisphere and in many other parts of the world demonstrates that terrorism arising from conflicts in the Middle East is now a global phenomenon.
THE INTERNATIONAL TERRORIST THREAT IN LATIN AMERICA The Lebanon-based, bran-backed Hizballah, which has waged and campaign of terror in the Middle East for many years, including many suicide car bombings, is now the major international terrorist threat in Latin America. The suicide bombing of the Israeli Embassy in 1992, which killed two, was Hizballah’s first terrorist act in Latin America. Hizballah denied responsibility for the crime, but Islamic Jihad, a clandestine terrorist wing of Hizballah, claimed to have carried out the suicide bombing, and authenticated its claim with and videotape of the Embassy before the bombing — a Hizballah trademark. The Government of Argentina has not yet charged any Suspect for the 194 AMIA bombing, but the evidence points to Hizballah as the bomber. The operation was & virtual duplicate of the 1992 suicide bombing, in which a vehicle carrying a massive explosives charge detonated in front of the Israeli Embassy. Ansar Allah, a clandestine subgroup of Hizballah, issued a statement expressing support for the bombing of the AMIA Center after it happened.
Another act of terrorism, the bombing of a commuter aircraft in Panama in July 1994, one day after the AMIA disaster, is still unsolved. Evidence gathered so far suggests it may also have been a Hizballah suicide bombing. Of the 21 passengers who were killed, twelve were Jews, and three of the twelve were dual national Panamanian-Americans. Ansar Allah also issued a press release supporting the attack. The apparent suicide bomber used a Middle Eastern name, but has not been otherwise identified. He had travelled the commuter plane route several times before the bombing, and no one claimed his remains.
We believe that Hizballah activities, which include narcotics and smuggling as well as terrorism, are supported in the tri-border area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. The organization is known to have cells in Colombia and Venezuela as well. Hizballah cells are concealed amidst the large Shia’ Muslim population of Lebanese origin which has settled in the tri-border area. Like the great majority of Latin America’s large Shia’ and Sunni Muslim communities, who emigrated from the Middle East, most of the Muslims in the tri-border area are peaceful, patriotic citizens who want nothing to do with terrorism. Nevertheless, Hizballah has used this area for fund raising and recruitment and for clandestine support for terrorism, narcotics and other illegal activities. Central government control is weak in this area; borders are porous and often unpatrolled; and it is a favorable environment for such operations.
Hizballah’s chief patron is Iran, and it is likely that Iran was aware of and provided support to the two Buenos Aires bombings. We believe that Hizballah has not committed terrorist acts abroad without Iranian consent. And Hizballah cells in Latin America and elsewhere in the world depend on guidance and logistical support from Iranian intelligence officers assigned to Iranian embassies in the region.
Mr. Chairman, Hizballah is only one of various international terrorist threats in Latin America affecting U.S. interests. Through August 1995, there were 53 acts of international terrorism in the region, of which 35 were directed against U.S. interests. Forty-two of these were in Colombia, where there have been repeated bombing attacks against multinational-owned oil property, and an epidemic of kidnappings.
In 1994, there were nearly 1,400 reported kidnappings in Colombia, a 35 percent increase over 1993, but the actual number may be even higher, since families and employers prefer to settle cases quietly by paying ransom. As of today, at least four U.S. citizens are being held for ransom by Colombia guerrillas, and two American hostages were killed on June 19, during a shoot-out between the terrorists and government forces. We have urged the Colombian government to redouble its efforts to free these hostages. But since they are being held in remote areas where the government’s control is weak, and since the terrorists are intent on extorting large ransoms, the prospect for voluntary release of these hostages is limited. Two groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army (ELN) were responsible for many of these terrorist acts. These and other guerrilla groups also have ties to Colombian narcotraffickers.
In Peru, the notorious Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path group, which has killed thousands over the years in pursuit of its revolutionary aims, has been in decline since the arrest of its leader, Abimeal Guzman in 1992. Yet Sendero remains a deadly organization.
It committed 215 acts of political murder in 1994, a major decline from 650 in 1992, but still a significant number. Its ideology is fervently and anti-foreign and anti-American, it has directed six attacks against foreign nationals so far this year. In July 1993, Sendero detonated a large car bomb in front of our Embassy in Lima.
Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Mexico have also suffered from political violence, but they have not experienced major incidents of international terrorism in recent years.
Cuba, the only Latin American nation on our list of state sponsors of terrorism, is no longer an active player in Latin American Terrorism. Its former Soviet and communist revolutionary allies are gone, and Havana is increasingly shunned in Latin America as more and more states of the region turn toward democracy and free market economies. Yet we believe Cuba still harbors terrorist elements, for example, from the Basque ETA group and the Colombian FARC and ELN, and for this reason it remains on our list of state sponsors.
STATE OF PROGRESS IN THE INVESTIGATION OF THE AMIA BOMBING Mr. Chairman, turning to the investigation of the AMIA bombing, Argentine leaders have emphasized to us their strong commitment to solve the AMIA bombing and the bombing of the Israeli Embassy, and to prevent any recurrence of such acts in their country. Also, Argentina’s leadership in hemispheric councils to promote greater counterterrorism cooperation has been impressive.
Large suicide bombings of this kind, which create massive destruction, are extraordinarily difficult challenges for investigators. We are concerned, nevertheless, that neither of these major crimes has been solved, and to our knowledge there has been no breakthrough in the AMIA investigation. I believe there are various reasons for this:
— Argentina’s laws and its investigative and judicial systems do not provide all the tools and resources that are needed to deal aggressively and intensively with such major crimes. We understand the Argentine Congress is now examining way to strengthen its anti-terrorism laws in ways that will enhance the government’s capabilities without endangering human rights. We have encouraged this effort. — In the past, Argentina’s borders have been porous, and the government lacked an adequate system for monitoring immigration. Recently, President Menem’s government has adopted a new program to prevent the use of fraudulent travel documents by terrorists or other criminal elements seeking to enter the country, and to tighten border controls against hostile elements.
— In the past, Argentina’s investigative, security and intelligence services have suffered from inadequate interagency coordination. Recently, steps have been taken to provide greater cohesion. We believe this holds promise.
— Argentina also needs to improve the effectiveness of officials working in lower levels of its law enforcement agencies. The Government of Argentina realizes that to deal with major acts of terrorism like the 1992 and 1994 bombings, improved law enforcement machinery is needed.
REGIONAL COOPERATION AND COORDINATION, AND THE U.S. ROLE The Buenos Aires bombings have created a sense of urgency in the hemisphere, galvanizing the states of the region into new cooperation. After the AMIA disaster, Secretary Christopher announced that he would send me, as his Coordinator for Counterterrorism, to Latin America to consult with the most concerned governments on a concrete plan to combat terrorism. He also announced that “as host for the 1994 Summit of the Americas, the United States will move to make terrorism in our hemisphere a priority item on our agenda.”
The United States has learned in other parts of the world that close consultation and cooperation among the law enforcement, intelligence, and diplomatic security services of friendly states is critical to fighting international terrorism. Spreading this approach of cooperation among the states of our own hemisphere has been one of this Administration’s foremost counterterrorism goals during the past year. Following up on Secretary Christopher’s announcement, in early September, 1994, I led an interagency team to Buenos Aires, Asuncion, Brasilia, and Caracas, to discuss operative measures.
In the next phase, the U.S., Argentina, and other like-minded nations led an initiative at the December Summit for an OAS meeting on terrorism, which will be held in Lima in early 1996. Argentina, which has been the most active Latin American state in this area, convened the U.N. Security Council after the AMIA bombing and sought approval of a “Declaration on Terrorism.” And a special session of the OAS Permanent Council was held for the same purpose. The OAS has also established a Working Group on Terrorism, charged with preparation for the 1996 conference.
In another move to strengthen subregional cooperation, Argentina hosted a conference in August this year in which the other states of the southern cone, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay, as well as the United States and Canada, took part. That meeting, at which I led the U.S. delegation, has proposed a series of concrete anti-terrorism cooperative measures in such areas as border control, intelligence sharing, extradition, and abuse of diplomatic privileges. It also called for wider adherence to international treaties and conventions against terrorism. These measures constitute a significant step toward greater regional cooperation in countering the international terrorist threat.
U.S. ASSISTANCE TO THE AMIA INQUIRY Because of the international dimensions of the AMIA bombing, the profound sympathy of the American people toward its victims, and the close U.S.-Argentina relationship, the United States has been active in various ways in assisting the Argentine government’s investigation.
Shortly after the bombing, Argentina asked us to assist in their post blast investigation. An International Response Team (IRT), managed by the Department of State’s bureau of Diplomatic Security with three explosives experts from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, flew to Buenos Aires. Additionally three FBI agents provided technical assistance. A similar IRT had helped Argentine in the early phases of the investigation of the 1992 Israeli Embassy, and the 1994 team included some who had participated in 1992 as well as experts who were involved in investigating the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
The ITT spent 12 days, working side-by-side with the Argentine Police and Israeli experts, who were also at the bomb site. Members of the IRT were instrumental in the recovery of parts of the engine of the Renault van, which the suicide bomber used to bomb the building, and which were important to the investigation.
They also helped monitor the clean-up efforts, and they provided technical advice to Argentine authorities on evidence collection and preservation, as well as laboratory analysis.
The United States has also provided various forms of anti-terrorism training to the Argentine Government through the Department of State’s Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program, administered by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, with policy guidance from the Coordinator for Counterterrorism. Since Argentina became a participant in the ATA program in 1992, ATA has trained over 280 officials in 17 courses, at a cost of approximately $2.2 million. In the next two fiscal years, ATA intends to hold an additional 10 courses for Argentine to train over 225 students. This highly specialized training in multiple skills will cost approximately $2.6 million, and will cover over 38 weeks of training.
CONCLUSION The AMIA bombing was an especially heinous act of terrorism. Aimed at the very heart of Argentina’s large and vibrant Jewish community, it imposed a dreadful cost in human life, and destroyed priceless archives as well. But out of this tragedy has come a greater awareness of the international terrorist threat to Argentina and the hemisphere.
The Argentine Government and people have rallied to denounce this evil and to express solidarity with the victims. And Argentina and the other states of Latin America are now working more closely together in the kinds of cooperative activities that are indispensable to fighting international terrorism.
This Administration is doing all it can to strengthen this trend, and to continue to assist Argentina, especially, to resolve the two bombings it has suffered and to prevent any recurrence of these terrible acts.