Since its founding in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has aimed to export its radical ideology throughout the region and beyond. To this end, Iran uses its own forces as well as proxies to attack those whom the regime opposes or who stand in the way of its expansion. Twenty-five years ago this month, Iran demonstrated its deadly terrorist reach in Argentina.
On July 18, 1994, in Argentina’s deadliest terrorist attack ever, a truck bomb exploded near the Argentine Mutual Israelite Association (AMIA) Jewish community center building in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people and injuring hundreds more. The Lebanon-based Iranian terrorist proxy Hezbollah, at the instruction of Iran’s top leadership and under the supervision of Iranian diplomats and intelligence officers, carried out the bombing.
Iran’s formation of terrorist networks around the world—which continue to expand to this day, particularly in South America—made the bombing possible. These networks have focused on American, Israeli and Jewish targets around the world. The U.S., working with local governments, should do its utmost to eliminate these dangerous networks.
Background and Previous Terrorist Plots and Attacks
The Quds Force, the arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) responsible for extraterritorial operations, founded the Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist organization in the early 1980s. Ever since, Iran has supervised, funded and armed Hezbollah, its primary international proxy force. Other than the assassinations of Iranian dissidents abroad, which were primarily perpetrated by Iranian agents, almost all of Iran’s international terrorist attacks have been carried out by Hezbollah—the first organization in modern times to employ suicide bombings.
Prior to the AMIA bombing, Iran and its proxy carried out the following terrorist attacks, among others:
July 22, 1980: An Iranian operative assassinated former Iranian diplomat Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a vocal critic of then-Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in Bethesda, Maryland.
May 25, 1982: A Hezbollah terrorist exploded a car bomb inside the French Embassy compound in Beirut, killing 12 people and wounding 27.
April 18, 1983: A Hezbollah suicide bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut killed 63 people, including 17 Americans, and injured 120 more.
Oct. 23, 1983: Two Hezbollah truck bombs struck buildings in Beirut that housed American and French service members of the Multinational Force in Lebanon, a military peacekeeping operation during the Lebanese Civil War. The attack killed 307 people: 241 U.S. and 58 French military personnel, and six civilians, along with the two terrorists.
Dec. 12, 1983: In addition to five other bombings in Kuwait, separate bombing attacks targeted the U.S. and French Embassies in Kuwait. Due to faulty execution, only five people were killed, all non-American and non-French civilians. A Hezbollah front group was implicated in these bombings.
Jan. 18, 1984: American University of Beirut President Malcolm Kerr was assassinated outside his office by two Hezbollah terrorists.
Sept. 20, 1984: A Hezbollah car bomb at the U.S. Embassy annex in Beirut killed 23 people, including two Americans. The U.S. Ambassador and the visiting British Ambassador were injured.
June 14, 1985: TWA Flight 847 was hijacked by Hezbollah after taking off from Athens. Passengers with Jewish-sounding names were separated from the others. U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem was murdered, and his body was thrown onto the tarmac. Dozens of passengers were held hostage for two weeks until some of the hijackers’ demands were met.
1979-1994: Iran murdered Iranian defectors and dissidents in West Germany, Austria, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Turkey.
1982-1992: Hezbollah kidnapped 104 foreign hostages, mostly Americans and Western Europeans. At least eight hostages died in captivity.
March 17, 1992: A Hezbollah suicide bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires killed 29 civilians, including two Israelis, and injured 242 additional civilians. The embassy building collapsed, as did a nearby Catholic church, a school and an apartment building across the street. Most of the casualties were Argentine civilians, mainly children from the school.
The AMIA Bombing
On July 18, 1994, a suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden van into the Jewish community center building. Ibrahim Hussein Berro, a Hezbollah operative who was subsequently honored in southern Lebanon with a plaque for his “martyrdom,” carried out the attack. Shortly after the attack, Hezbollah front group Ansar Allah claimed responsibility through leaflets distributed in Sidon, Lebanon, and a communique in the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar.
In 1999, an Argentine arrest warrant was issued against senior Hezbollah official and Lebanese citizen Imad Mughniyah for his involvement in the AMIA bombing. A federal judge, in 2003, issued warrants for the arrests of 12 Iranians, including Iran’s ambassador to Argentina at the time of the AMIA bombing, Hade Soleimanpour. The Iranian Embassy in Argentina was used as a primary operational center for the AMIA bombing.
In 2006, Argentina issued an international arrest warrant for former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, seven other Iranians and Mughniyah. Despite heavy Iranian pressure Interpol issued Red Notices seeking extradition of six of the nine wanted people, in 2007.
Interpol’s wanted notices were issued for Iran’s Intelligence Minister at the time of the bombing and currently member of Iran’s influential Assembly of Experts, Ali Fallahian; intelligence officer Mohsen Rabbani, who was appointed cultural attaché in Buenos Aires four months prior to the attack; Buenos Aires-based Iranian diplomat Ahmad Reza Asghari; Quds Force commander at the time and now an advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, General Ahmad Vahidi; IRGC commander and now Secretary of the Expediency Council, General Mohsen Rezaee; and Mughniyah. To date, these Red Notices remain in force—except for Interpol’s wanted notice against Mughniyah, who was assassinated in 2008.
Subsequent Terrorist Plots and Attacks
Following the AMIA bombing, Iran and its proxies have continued to use terrorism for political aims. Their attacks include:
July 19, 1994: Panamanian airliner Alas Chiricanas Flight 00901, en route from Colon City to Panama City, exploded shortly after takeoff. All 21 on board, including 12 Jews, were killed in the suicide bombing. Officials believe the bombing, which took place one day after the AMIA attack, was perpetrated by Hezbollah and intended to kill the Jewish passengers aboard the aircraft.
June 25, 1996: A suicide truck bomber belonging to the Iranian proxy organization Saudi Hezbollah; attacked the Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. airmen and a Saudi civilian, and injuring 498 others, including civilians. In 2001, a U.S. court issued indictments against Hezbollah official Mughniyah and 15 other members of Iranian proxy organizations.
Feb. 14, 2005: In Beirut, former Prime Minister of Lebanon Rafic Hariri was killed, along with 21 others, in a powerful explosion; detonated by Hezbollah, as his motorcade drove near the St. George Hotel.
May 2008: Two Hezbollah terrorists were captured as they prepared to attack the Israeli embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan. The terrorists underwent advanced training in Iran before departing to Baku, carrying Iranian passports. During their arrest, security forces discovered pistols with silencers, explosives, cameras, binoculars and photographs of the Israeli embassy in their vehicle. The two were tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Prior to this thwarted attack, a planned attack by Iran’s Quds Force, aiming to harm Jewish figures at the Eurovision contest in Baku, was also prevented in 2008.
November 2008: In April 2009, the Egyptian government announced that in November 2008, it had broken up a large Hezbollah cell in Egypt. Among 49 plotters identified as members of the cell, 26 were arrested, some charged with smuggling weapons to the Hamas terrorist organization in Gaza, while the others fled. The cell targeted Israeli tourists in Egypt as well as broader Egyptian targets. In April 2010, three defendants were sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment. Another 23 defendants were imprisoned with sentences ranging from six months to 15 years. All of them escaped from prison during the chaotic days of the 2011 revolution that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
September 2009: An Iranian operative hired a hitman to assassinate an Iranian-American regime opponent and radio personality in Glendora, California. The plot was foiled.
May 26, 2011: Eight Turkish citizens were injured in the attempted assassination of the Israeli Consul in Istanbul. The Quds Force led the attempted assassination with assistance on the ground from Hezbollah members. Preceding this attempt, in 2009 and 2010, were a number of unsuccessful attempts by Iran and Hezbollah to strike Israeli targets in Turkey.
Sept. 29, 2011: The FBI arrested an Iranian citizen at New York’s JFK Airport and later charged him, along with a Quds Force operative who remains at large, with plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. by blowing up a Washington restaurant and subsequently blow up the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington. In May 2013, after pleading guilty, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Feb. 14, 2012: Several bombings in Bangkok, Thailand, injured five people. Thai authorities said the bombings were a botched attempt by Iranian nationals to assassinate Israeli diplomats. Several Iranians were arrested and charged with the attacks.
July 7, 2012: Cypriot authorities arrested a Hezbollah terrorist, with a Swedish passport, who collected information on Israelis arriving on flights to the island in preparation for an attack on the tourists. In 2013, a Cypriot court sentenced him to four years in jail.
July 18, 2012: A Hezbollah suicide bomber attacked a passenger bus transporting Israeli tourists from the Burgas Airport in Bulgaria to their hotels. The bus was carrying 42 Israelis, mainly youths. The explosion killed five Israelis and the Bulgarian bus driver and injured 36 Israelis.
May 30, 2015: A Lebanese-Canadian Hezbollah member was arrested in Larnaca, Cyprus, after 8.2 tons of potential bomb-making material were found in his basement. A month later, he was sentenced to six years in jail for preparing the ground for Hezbollah “to harm, through terrorist attacks, Israeli interests in Cyprus.”
June 30-July 1, 2018: On June 30, Belgian police arrested a Belgian couple of Iranian descent carrying explosives and a detonator on their way to a mass gathering of Iranian dissidents near Paris. That day at the rally, French police arrested another Iranian accused of being an accomplice in the foiled bombing. On July 1, German police arrested an Iranian diplomat on charges of plotting the attack and personally delivering the explosives to the couple arrested in Belgium.
Aug. 9, 2018: Two Iranians who collected information on Israeli and Jewish targets in the U.S. and on opponents of the Iranian regime were arrested and later charged with spying for Tehran. One of those charged had carried out surveillance and took photos at several Jewish centers in Chicago, including the Hillel Center and the Rohr Chabad House.
Iranian Global Terrorism Networks
In order to conduct these worldwide terrorist attacks and plots, Iran, primarily through Hezbollah, has implanted terrorism networks, cells or sleeper agents, on six continents. Below is a small sample of Hezbollah’s global reach.
The United States and Canada:
Hezbollah has been active in North America since the mid-1990s. Until 2008, its efforts focused on procuring small arms and specialized military equipment, both in the U.S. and Canada, to be smuggled to Lebanon. In addition, the terrorist group partners with Colombian, Mexican and Venezuelan drug cartels to launder drug money—mainly in Canada—in return for cuts of the proceeds that were funneled directly to Hezbollah’s military apparatus. More recently, Hezbollah operatives have directly smuggled drugs from South America to the U.S., keeping all the proceeds for themselves.
It appears that Mughniyah’s assassination in February 2008, which Hezbollah attributed to the U.S. and Israel, led to a Hezbollah decision to take revenge on both countries. Beyond the mostly unsuccessful efforts cited above to target Israelis around the globe, in the U.S., Hezbollah planted two sleeper agents—seemingly ordinary people leading normal lives who could be activated to carry out terrorist attacks when ordered to do so. Both were Lebanese citizens, received intensive military training from Hezbollah, and were chosen, in part, because they also held American passports.
In addition, in 2017, two Hezbollah agents were arrested for engaging in terrorist activities in the United States on behalf of Hezbollah in preparation for attacks against American and Israeli targets. Ali Kourani, a Bronx resident, was arrested in June 2017 and charged with conducting covert surveillance of potential targets in the U.S., including civilian, military, law-enforcement and Israeli-related facilities in New York. Samer El Debek, a resident of Dearborn, Michigan, was arrested the same day. He was charged with conducting surveillance missions in the U.S., as well as operations in Panama to surveil the U.S. and Israeli embassies and to assess the vulnerabilities and ships of the Panama Canal. He also identified the availability of explosive precursors in Panama. On May 16, Kourani was convicted on eight counts and will be sentenced in September for a maximum term of life imprisonment. The case against El Debek is still pending. In August 2018, two Iranian agents were arrested for surveilling potential terrorist targets in the United States, including Israeli and Jewish targets in Chicago.
For more than three decades, Hezbollah has been increasingly entrenched in the lawless Tri-Border Area (TBA) between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, which is considered its second-largest source of funding after Iran. Building on the large local Lebanese population, deep corruption of local government and law enforcement—particularly in Paraguay—weak border controls, and the central governments’ lack of interest, Hezbollah collects tens of millions of dollars annually through money laundering, international drug trafficking, cigarette smuggling, counterfeiting of U.S. dollars, passport falsification, credit card, immigration, bank fraud, and voluntary donations from local Lebanese supporters.
Beyond the still ongoing funding for Hezbollah, the TBA was also deeply involved in Hezbollah’s bombings of the Israeli Embassy (1992) and the AMIA (1994) in Buenos Aires, helping move money, operatives and bomb components. The local Lebanese community provided operational support, working with diplomats in the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires. Training for the Israeli Embassy bombing was done at a terrorist training camp in the TBA. A leader of its Lebanese community participated in the funding and planning of the AMIA bombing.
Hezbollah has established itself in other parts of South America as well. Venezuela: The government granted Iranian military firms large tracts of isolated land to develop missile technology. According to a New York Times exposé (May 2, 2019), former Justice Minister, Foreign Minister and Vice President Tareck El Aissami, of Lebanese extraction, and his family “helped sneak Hezbollah militants into the country.” He and his father were accused of “recruiting Hezbollah members to help expand spying and drug trafficking networks in the region.” According to the exposé, “Hezbollah militants established themselves in the country with Mr. El Aissami’s help.” Colombia: In 2016, a cell of three Hezbollah money launderers, working for the Medellin drug cartel, was cracked after agents say the culprits illegally moved $500,000 into Miami banks. The cell’s boss lived in Medellin. Bolivia: Security services in 2017 uncovered a Hezbollah warehouse, seizing enough explosive precursor material to produce a 2.5-ton bomb, as well as a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. Peru: Authorities arrested a Hezbollah operative who had planned to carry out attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets. Investigators found traces of explosives in his home.
According to terrorism expert Matthew Levitt, “Hezbollah has been active in Europe since the terrorist group's founding in the early 1980s, when it engaged in a long list of attacks across the continent… It has continuously raised funds, procured arms and provided logistical support from Europe for attacks to be carried out elsewhere.” A senior U.S. official stated on May 31, 2013: “The fact that Hezbollah had operational networks historically in Europe is not new to us… We were already in the spring of 2012 having numerous conversations with European governments about the danger that Hezbollah was posing.” Germany: There were about 250 active Hezbollah operatives, out of about 950 Hezbollah members, throughout Germany, according to a 2014 Berlin intelligence report. In 2017, a Berlin court sentenced a Pakistani citizen to four years in prison for working for Iran’s Quds Force to spy “against Germany and another NATO member.” According to German prosecutors, he was instructed to identify Israeli and Jewish institutions and Israel advocates for possible attacks in Germany, France and other unnamed Western European countries. Intelligence agents for the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia issued a report in early July 2019 referencing Quds Force activities in the state. According to the report, “A main focus is spying on Israeli and pro-Israeli institutions, as well as citizens of the State of Israel living here and persons of the Jewish faith.”
According to a recent report, Iranian cells are said to be active in Sudan, Chad, Ghana, Niger, Gambia and the Central African Republic. Hezbollah has been active in several African countries with large Lebanese minorities. In May 2013, Nigerian authorities arrested three Hezbollah operatives who were storing anti-tank weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and launchers, small arms, and a large quantity of ammunition and explosives in the country.
In January 2012, Thai security officials arrested a Hezbollah terrorist holding Swedish and Lebanese passports at the Bangkok airport. He led investigators to a warehouse in Bangkok that was storing 4.5 tons of chemical materials that were to be used in the manufacture of explosives.
In 2013, an exchange house used by an Australian money laundering operation provided Hezbollah with a portion of every dollar it moved. In 2016, a Hezbollah operative, along with two associates, was arrested after illegally moving $500,000 in and out of Australia. A dual citizen of Lebanon and Australia and a former Sydney used-car salesman is on trial for providing support for the 2012 bombing of the Israeli tourists’ bus in Burgas, Bulgaria.
Conclusion: The Threat from Iran and Its Proxy Hezbollah Is Still Growing
The State Department considers Hezbollah “the most technically capable terrorist group in the world,” with a global reach that is still growing. Hezbollah’s sponsor, Iran’s IRGC-Quds Force, has also placed its own terrorist assets around the world. Through these global terrorist resources—including sleeper agents with access to prepositioned weapons and explosives—Iran and its proxy Hezbollah pose a direct threat to the United States and Israel.
The administration, Congress and the intelligence community must redouble their efforts to dismantle Iran and Hezbollah’s worldwide networks and thwart their nefarious international activities.
Type: Near-East-Report Near East Report NERSummer2019