Alberto Nisman was a 51-year-old special prosecutor in Argentina who had spent more than a decade investigating the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires. On January 18, 2015, his lifeless body was found in his apartment in the capital. Though Argentine authorities have since conceded that the precise cause of Nisman’s death is unknown, their first reaction was to label it a suicide. But as waves of contradictory evidence emerged from the forensic examination, and as Nisman’s colleagues and friends angrily disputed that this energetic jurist would have suddenly taken his own life, the suicide explanation rapidly disintegrated. The smart money is now on murder, and establishing who might have pulled the trigger rises to a level of intrigue more commonly found in the novels of John le Carré.
The question of why Nisman died is more important. His death coincided with the ascension of two major geopolitical trends, both of which were intimately related to his life’s work: a surge in global anti-Semitism and the rise of Iran (the likely culprit behind the AMIA bombing) as the dominant power in the Middle East.
As Nisman, himself a Jew, noted in a lengthy 2006 report on the AMIA atrocity, the slaughter that took place on July 18, 1994, had to be understood first and foremost as an anti-Semitic attack. “Any interpretation of the terrorist attack that ignores this salient characteristic,” he wrote, “runs the risk of sinning by omission.” Given the history of anti-Semitism in Argentina, as well as the country’s opportunistic relations with states such as Iran that are dedicated to Israel’s destruction, one might say exactly the same about Nisman’s own death.
The Amia bombing was, by some lights, the single worst anti-Semitic atrocity since World War II. Eighty-five people were murdered when a terrorist rammed a van loaded with a lethal mix of fertilizer and fuel oil into the Jewish community center on Pasteur Street, leaving a pile of rubble where the edifice had stood.
That attack did not take place in a vacuum. Argentina’s relations with both the Jewish people and the State of Israel have long been compromised by anti-Semitism—a state of affairs that dates back at least to World War II. During the Nazi period, Argentina was closely aligned with the Axis powers. The county had large German and Italian immigrant communities, and its military evinced strongly anti-Communist, pro-Nazi sympathies. When Juan Perón became Argentina’s president in 1946, thousands of German Nazis, along with their collaborators from countries including France and Croatia, found sanctuary in Argentina. Many of these newcomers arrived with cash and other valuables looted from Jewish families back in Europe.
Soon after the war, the newly created State of Israel understood that it would receive little assistance from the Argentine judicial system in its efforts to bring these monsters to justice. In his book The Trial of Adolf Eichmann, about the Nazi war criminal seized by Israeli agents in Buenos Aires in 1960, Lord Edward Russell documented a telling remark by the Nazi-crimes investigator Simon Wiesenthal. In 1959, Wiesenthal concluded that Argentina’s consistent refusal to arrest Dr. Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi “Angel of Death,” “would be an ideal test case to prove the Argentine government’s utter disregard for justice.” The following year, having realized that this disregard centered upon Jews, the Israelis were left with no choice but to launch their daring operation to capture Eichmann.
Argentina has since been fertile ground for the flourishing of anti-Semitic ideology. This animus toward Jews fits naturally in its climate of nationalism, militarism, and general mistrust of foreign intentions. The military regime that plunged Argentina into its darkest period, between 1976 and 1983, reserved special opprobrium for its Jewish opponents: Though Jews made up only 1 percent of the Argentine population, they made up at least 10 percent of the junta’s victims.
By the 1990s, with the country on a comparatively democratic footing, another group of anti-Semites was stalking Argentina and Latin America more generally: the ruling mullahs of Iran. They saw in the region an opportunity to win both political support on the vibrant extremes of left and right, and to carry out murderous terror attacks that might not be so easily executed in the United States or in Europe. On March 17, 1992, a suicide bomber drove a truck crammed with explosives into the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people and injuring 242 others. Intelligence gathered by the American National Security Agency revealed the primary culprit as Imad Mughniyeh, an Iranian-supported Hezbollah operative. (Mughniyeh, never brought to justice, was killed in 2008 by a car bomb in Damascus.)
Having noted that the Argentine authorities had no intention of seriously investigating the Israeli Embassy bombing, the Iranians and their Hezbollah subsidiaries had a green light to carry out the AMIA atrocity in 1994. The technique in the attack was similar to that used on the embassy, though this time the death toll was even higher.
These acts set in motion one of the most bizarre and torturous episodes in Argentina’s legal history. It is a story littered with incomplete and conflicting facts, tales of bribery and shabby compromise, failed investigations, and corrupted officials. It’s important to bear three indisputable truths in mind: First, no one has ever been convicted for the Israeli Embassy bombing. Second, no one has ever been convicted for the AMIA bombing. Third, the most tangible outcome of this entire process has been the suspicious death of the one man who dedicated himself to unraveling these grotesque mysteries: Alberto Nisman, the special prosecutor; Alberto Nisman, the Jew.
In May 2007, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, at the time Argentina’s first lady, delivered a lengthy keynote speech at the annual meeting of the American Jewish Committee in Washington D.C. Kirchner solemnly underlined her commitment to finding the perpetrators of the AMIA bombing and bringing them to justice. By October 2007, Kirchner had been elected to succeed her late husband as president of Argentina. Jewish communal organizations both in Argentina and abroad expressed unbridled confidence that she would continue in the manner of her husband, Néstor Kirchner, who treated Jewish concerns with respect and urgency after years of contempt and neglect.
We will never know whether Cristina Kirchner was lying through her teeth during that Washington speech, or whether she gradually decided to fabricate the innocence of Iran’s most senior officials over the AMIA bombing. Regardless, eight years after that appearance, Kirchner and a number of her government associates—including Foreign Minister Hector Timerman—were the subjects of a draft arrest warrant set to be issued by Alberto Nisman. The warrant, discovered in Nisman’s garbage can by local police weeks after his death, accused Kirchner of having negotiated a deal with the Iranians. The arrest warrant alleged that Iranian oil was to be exchanged for Argentine grain and that those Iranians accused of directing the AMIA bombing would be exonerated.
How did things get to this pass?
By the time Nisman inherited the AMIA case in 2004, a decade after the bombing, the judicial proceedings had descended into farce. The initial investigation, established by then-President Carlos Menem, was deliberately weighted toward convicting low-level operatives supposedly involved in the attack. A group of police officers and a stolen-car trafficker named Carlos Telleldín were tried and acquitted, and then had their acquittals overturned. (Today, Menem and the judge in the first AMIA case, Juan José Galeano, are facing trial based on charges that they, like Kirchner and several of her colleagues, collaborated in covering the tracks of the main perpetrators.) During this period, however, six Iranian diplomats were expelled from the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires owing to an intercepted telephone call from the embassy that offered evidence of Tehran’s responsibility for the bombing.
When Néstor Kirchner became Argentina’s president in 2003, there was a marked improvement in the substance and tone of the Argentine government’s rhetoric about the AMIA bombing. Finally, it seemed, Argentina had a leader who wanted to bring this travesty of justice to an honorable conclusion. In appointing Nisman, universally seen as a serious and dedicated man, Kirchner sent a signal that he meant business.
Nisman was aware he was under the watchful gaze of Antonio “Jaime” Stiuso, the enigmatic chief of Argentina’s state intelligence service. But he got to work fast. In 2005, he named a Lebanese citizen, Ibrahim Hussein Berro, as the suicide bomber who had driven the explosives-laden truck into the AMIA building. By 2006, Nisman had set his sights even higher: He formally accused Iran and Hezbollah of orchestrating the attack. Nisman’s indictment named Iran’s top leaders as having approved the bombing. These included Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, then-President Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, and then-Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati.
Nisman’s tenacity and thoroughness were duly noted by the law-enforcement officials with whom he worked in the United States and Europe. In 2008, Nisman persuaded Interpol to release Red Notices—which seek the location, arrest, and extradition of wanted persons—for the capture of several Iranian officials, including former Deputy Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi and Mohsen Rabbani, who served as the “cultural attaché” at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires at the time of the bombing.
By this time, Nisman’s audacity had sounded alarms with influential leftists and pro-Iranian figures close to President Cristina Kirchner. For them, the AMIA investigation was a major political irritant. In 2009, Kirchner appealed to the United Nations for Iran’s cooperation in extraditing those responsible for the AMIA attack, but she stopped far short of proposing concrete measures against Tehran. In other words, there was no talk of breaking diplomatic relations with, or targeted sanctions against, Iran. In 2010, Luis D’Elía, a key supporter of Kirchner with a strong background in mobilizing the marginalized and jobless masses of Greater Buenos Aires, lauded Rabbani as a “much-loved person” and denounced Nisman as a “maliciously Zionist prosecutor.”
In the same year, Foreign Minister Timerman—the son of Jacobo Timerman, a Jewish newspaper editor who had infamously been imprisoned and tortured by the former military regime—offered a clear indication that Argentina was no longer serious about securing justice for the AMIA victims.
“The case of Iran is simple,” the foreign minister told an Argentine newspaper. “An Argentine court has asked for the extradition because it says it has evidence connecting [the suspected Iranians] to the attack on the AMIA and wants to question them. It’s up to Iran to extradite them to Argentina, where they will receive due process.” Small wonder, then, that by 2013, Kirchner and Timerman had officially proposed a “truth commission” to the Iranians, in which representatives of both countries would settle the extradition dispute.
The Iranians correctly treated that announcement as a victory. Even though an Argentine federal court later struck down the pact with Iran as a constitutional breach, there was nothing to compel the Kirchner regime to continue with the AMIA investigation. In effect, Nisman was now out in the cold, paving the way for his subsequent, earth-shattering accusations against Kirchner and those around her—accusations that may well have cost him his life.
Simon Wiesenthal’s 1959 warning about Argentina’s “utter disregard for justice” rings as true today as it did back then. Nisman had been scheduled to appear before a congressional committee one day after his death. If he had lived to make that appearance, he would have outlined the accusations against Kirchner and her colleagues in greater detail.
From the moment Nisman’s body was discovered, the inquiry into his death faithfully reflected the judicial sham that had plagued the actual AMIA investigation. At first, the authorities insinuated that Nisman had shot himself in the temple. A few days later, it was noted that the fatal bullet had entered above and behind his ear—a strange method, indeed, to end one’s own life with a gun. We were told that there were only two entrances into Nisman’s apartment, one through the main door of his building, the other through a service elevator. But then a third entrance was found in the form of a narrow corridor that housed air-conditioning units. Police discovered unidentified footprints in this corridor. Nisman had already told confidants that his accusations against Kirchner had left him fearful for his life, but on the day he died, his bodyguards were nowhere to be seen. Almost one month after he died, the claim that he had been alone in his apartment on his last night alive was blown out of the water: Investigators at his home unearthed the DNA of a second unidentified person.
These basic errors—whether caused by incompetence, design, or a mixture of the two—were compounded by Kirchner’s own statements. Increasingly sounding like an angst-ridden protagonist in a telenovela, the president initially declared that Nisman had probably committed suicide. She also breathlessly accused Nisman of working at the behest of foreign powers, stating that during a trip he made to Europe a few weeks before he died, he’d received precise instructions on how to proceed with the accusations against her. Then, with a remarkable lack of self-awareness, Kirchner changed her mind; Nisman’s death, she now said, was probably a murder. Simultaneously, she began the overhaul of Argentina’s entire intelligence apparatus and charged that Stiuso, the intelligence chief, had manipulated Nisman into drawing up the accusations in pursuit of a political vendetta against her.
Kirchner’s reputation in Argentina has taken a severe battering. Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Buenos Aires in mid-February to demand an end to the government’s meddling in the Nisman death investigation. The calls to treat Nisman’s death as a murder, from such prominent figures as the federal judge (and former wife of Nisman) Sandra Arroyo Salgado, are growing in volume and intensity. In March, Arroyo Salgado said that independent forensic experts hired by Nisman’s family concluded that his death was a homicide. Some Argentines, such as Sergio Bergman, a rabbi who is also a member of Argentina’s parliament, are openly saying that Nisman was murdered by Iran. “Tehran has always been involved here, mixed up with the intelligence services, making agreements with the government, planting spies, in some ways invading us,” he told Haaretz. “Iran decides what it does here.”
Clearly, Argentina’s chronically disfigured political system is not in a position to deliver justice for anyone: not for the victims at the Israeli Embassy or at the AMIA building, and certainly not for Nisman himself. Because of that, there is a tendency to view these atrocities as permanently unsolvable. To make matters worse, Judge Daniel Rafecas, a faithful Kirchner ally, decreed in February that Nisman’s complaint against the president should be dismissed out of hand.
“Which Nisman do I go with?” Kirchner herself asked in early March, implying that because the special prosecutor had once praised her remarks about AMIA before the United Nations, there was no basis for his later accusations against her. For good measure, Kirchner then offered up the outlines of a conspiracy theory: Why, she asked, “does the State of Israel demand [justice] for AMIA, and not for the blowing up of their own embassy?” She offered no further explanation; in the Kirchnerite universe, it is enough to encourage speculation about Israel’s agenda and allow people to draw their own malign conclusions.
In the face of such injustice, resignation is understandable, but it’s not commendable. For the death of Alberto Nisman is about much more than the gruesome fate of one man. How the international community responds is of manifest importance. Yet Western governments find themselves imprisoned within a paradox of their own design. On the one hand, they increasingly acknowledge that anti-Semitism constitutes a civilizational threat, and on the other, they’re resigned to the fact that Iran—the main state sponsor of anti-Semitism in the world—is accumulating an unprecedented degree of power.
It is striking to note that Nisman’s death came slightly more than a week after the Islamist terror attacks that consumed Paris in early January. The murder of four Jewish shoppers at a kosher supermarket on the eve of the Sabbath demonstrated conclusively that hatred of Israel is predicated on hatred of Jews. As the British philosopher Eve Garrard put it in a recent essay: “The causal arrow runs from anti-Judaism through anti-Zionism to the resurgent anti-Semitism that we are trying to explain.”
As well as trying to explain this anti-Semitic resurgence, we are also trying to measure it. And signs of its scope are strewn throughout Latin America. In Venezuela, native anti-Semitism coupled with growing Iranian penetration has reduced the Jewish community to a shadow of its former self. During the war between Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza in the summer of 2014, swastikas were painted on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. During the same period, a mob of 5,000 furious demonstrators descended on the Israeli Embassy in Chile.
Western leaders such as French Prime Minister Manuel Valls and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have insisted that the only way to deal with anti-Semitism is through a policy of zero tolerance. But a policy that concentrates on the threat posed by Sunni jihadists while eliding the Iranian factor is no policy at all. The Nisman case provides an opportunity to secure a just outcome that focuses on Iran’s role in exporting murderous anti-Semitism. That means inspecting those nooks and crannies of the AMIA bombing that, thus far, only Nisman had the courage to dip into.
Consider, for example, the alleged role of the Iranian president, Hasan Rouhani, in whom President Barack Obama has placed so much faith regarding negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Rouhani was not among the Iranian officials named by Nisman in his 2006 report. The Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer, however, revealed in a January 21 article that Nisman had told him about an Iranian witness who had reported that Rouhani had been a member of a special-intelligence committee, “which in 1994 was overseeing secret operations abroad, including the AMIA bombing.” Oppenheimer wrote that Nisman “added privately that he believed in [the witness’s] testimony, and that as a member of the committee Rouhani was likely to have known of the AMIA bombing plan.”
Such a promising lead should be pursued. But the Argentine government is incapable and unwilling to do so, and the current American administration is determined to let nothing obstruct its pursuit of a nuclear deal with the Iranians.
Neither of those factors, though, should compel us to raise our arms in surrender. Internationalization of the investigations into both the AMIA bombing and the Nisman death might help create a path to justice. There is an established precedent. After the February 2005 murder of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, the United Nations established the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is currently presided over by a Czech judge, Ivana Hrdlicková. The tribunal’s progress has been excruciatingly slow and often confounded by the political imperatives of the interested member states. But it serves a valuable purpose on two levels. First, it reminds the world of Iranian and Syrian complicity in acts of terrorism, and second, it has assembled an exhaustive account of the circumstances of Hariri’s assassination.
Arguably even more promising is the suggestion of Representative Ed Royce, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Royce told Secretary of State John Kerry, in a letter on January 23, that the administration “should press for a thorough and impartial international investigation into [Nisman’s] death, and the serious allegations of Argentine collusion with Iran that Nisman was poised to unveil before the Argentine legislature just hours before his body was found.”
The establishment of an independent panel along the lines suggested by Royce should be a priority for the new, Republican-controlled Congress. Ultimately, anti-Semitism is a worldview that trades in lies and crumbles before overwhelming truth. Alfred Dreyfus, the French army captain falsely convicted of treason in 1894, learned exactly that when he was finally exonerated in 1906, after several years of incarceration on Devil’s Island. The world owes Alberto Nisman no less.