A Reporter At Large: In The Party Of God (Part II)
Hezbollah sets up operations in South America and the United States.
By Jeffrey Goldberg
The New Yorker, October 28, 2002
[Read this article at The New Yorker’s website]
The patrol boat, a Boston whaler, was worn at its edges, and it was pocked with bullet holes along its starboard side. It had a four-man crew, officers of the Brazilian Federal Police. They carried AK-47s and side arms, and they wore jeans, sunglasses, and bulletproof vests, which made them sweat. The patrol chief steered the boat into the middle of the Parana River-half a mile wide, muddy, and sluggish. He opened up the boat’s two Suzuki engines, and as we moved north the outskirts of the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguacu came into view on the right; on the opposite side was the Paraguayan jungle, where smoke from cooking fires rose above the tree line. The chief, who was worried about snipers, kept the boat moving fast. He pointed to a series of chutes, dug out from the banks on the Paraguayan side, down which drug smugglers move bales of marijuana to the river.
A decaying iron bridge, the International Friendship Bridge, connects Foz do Iguacu to its Paraguayan sister city, Ciudad del Este, the City of the East. Ciudad del Este is at the heart of the zone known as the Triple Frontier, the point where Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina meet, which has served for nearly thirty years as a hospitable base of operations for smugglers, counterfeiters, and tax dodgers. The Triple Frontier has earned its reputation as one of the most lawless places in the world. Now, it is believed, the Frontier is also the center of Middle Eastern terrorism in South America.
From the boat, we could see that the traffic above us on the bridge was at a standstill. Between twenty and twenty-five thousand people cross the bridge each day, Brazilian police officials said. Pedestrians, many carrying huge packages, follow a narrow walkway that runs along the bridge’s outer edge; motorcyclists maneuver among trucks and buses. From the river, one sees only a jumble of towers clustered near the edge of Ciudad del Este, and the men on the patrol looked that way with distaste. “It’s filthy and disgusting,” the chief said. “Everything there is illegal.” And the local police? The men smiled, and the chief said, “They do what they do, and we do what we do.”
The chief explained that the underworld of Ciudad del Este is dominated by Asian and Middle Eastern mobsters. Many of them prefer to float contraband across the river rather than use the bridge, but the men caught smuggling are invariably poor Paraguayans. As he spoke, we passed, on the Paraguayan shore, a group of shirtless men, who stared at the boat. “They’re just waiting for us to leave the river,” the chief said. “Then they’ll start across.” The sun by now was setting, and the police seldom patrol at night. It would be too dangerous, the chief said.
The men on the boat were all residents of Foz do Iguacu-Foz, as it is usually called-an orderly city that employs street sweepers and traffic police. I asked them if they ever visited Ciudad del Este. One said that he used to go for the shopping. Much of Ciudad del Este is built around vast, canyonlike shopping malls. The better malls sell legitimately acquired products at discounted prices, and the rougher ones specialize in stolen and pirated goods.
Roughly two hundred thousand people live in the Ciudad del Este region, including a substantial minority of Arab Muslims; in the Triple Frontier zone, there may be as many as thirty thousand. According to intelligence officials in the region and in Washington, this Muslim community has in its midst a hard core of terrorists, many of them associated with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group backed by the Iranian government; some with Hamas, the Palestinian fundamentalist group; and some with Al Qaeda. It is, over all, a community under the influence of extreme Islamic beliefs; intelligence officials told me that some of the Triple Frontier Arabs held celebrations on September 11th of last year and also on the anniversary this year. These officials said that Hezbollah runs weekend training camps on farms cut out of the rain forest of the Triple Frontier. In at least one of these camps, in the remote jungle terrain near Foz do Iguacu, young adults get weapons training and children are indoctrinated in Hezbollah ideology-a mixture of anti-American and anti-Jewish views inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini.
In the Triple Frontier, Hezbollah raises money from legitimate businesses but, more frequently, from illicit activities, ranging from drug smuggling to the pirating of compact disks. Unlike the other radical Islamic groups in the Triple Frontier, Hezbollah, it is said, has the capability to commit acts of terror.
A billboard advertising the services of the Kamikaze Tour Company stands near the Foz do Iguacu entrance to the International Friendship Bridge. It is faster to walk the half-mile span than to drive, and so I joined a line of Guarani Indians and Brazilian traders who had assembled one morning under a sign on the Foz side that read, “You Are the Strong Ones, Not the Drugs.” A Brazilian police helicopter circled overhead.
In Ciudad del Este, there is an immediate sense of heat and claustrophobic closeness. The streets, jammed with people and worked by watch sellers and money changers, give way to alleys, and the alleys open up onto strips of badly built shops. The smallest shops, some barely six feet by six feet, are called lojas, and are crammed with in-line skates and cellular telephones and pharmaceuticals-almost anything that could fall off a truck. Guarani women sit on the ground, drinking mate through metal straws. The sidewalks are dense with stands selling sunglasses and perfume, and with tables of pornographic videos. Marijuana is sold openly; so are pirated CDs. The music of Eminem came from one shop; from another, there were sounds familiar to me from South Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley-martial Hezbollah music. I bought a cassette recording of the speeches of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader.
In a shop called Caza y Pesca Monday, or the Monday Hunting and Fishing Store, the owner offered to sell me an AK-47 rifle for three hundred and seventy dollars. For an extra thirty dollars, he said, he could have it smuggled to my hotel in Brazil. I asked whether it was possible to acquire explosives. He said it would be more difficult, though not impossible. The cost of smuggling them would be significantly more than thirty dollars.
A few blocks from the center of town, the Mosque of the Prophet Muhammad occupies the first three floors of an unfinished fourteen-story apartment house. The building is painted green and white and topped by an oversized crescent and star, the symbols of Islam. When I arrived, the mosque was opening for afternoon prayers, and I was introduced to Muhammad Youssef Abdallah, who owns the building and built the mosque. Abdallah, a short, round, voluble man in his fifties, is an immigrant from a village in South Lebanon, near the Israeli border.
He told me that he came to the Triple Frontier more than twenty years ago, in a wave of Lebanese immigrants who had discovered a part of South America that welcomed international traders. Like most Lebanese businessmen in Ciudad del Este, he lives in the more orderly climate of Foz do Iguacu. He also has a farm outside Foz. For many years, he said, he owned one of the malls in Ciudad del Este, but now he devotes his time to the propagation of the faith. He invited me into his office, on the second floor of the mosque. On the wall was a portrait of Sayyid Muhammad Hussayn Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah; on a shelf was a gun.
I told Abdallah that, a month earlier, I had interviewed Fadlallah in his home in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the Hezbollah stronghold. He asked if I knew his cousin, Hani Abdallah, Fadlallah’s spokesman, and seemed pleased when I said yes. In 1994, according to Paraguayan intelligence officials, Fadlallah travelled undercover to Ciudad del Este, on an Iranian passport, in order to bless the mosque. Abdallah was quick to say that Fadlallah plays no official role in the work of Hezbollah-that he is merely a spiritual adviser to poor Shiites throughout the world. Fadlallah and his followers said much the same thing when we met in Lebanon.
Abdallah, who has never been charged with any wrongdoing, was circumspect in describing his activities. “If you touch on Hezbollah, you get a shock,” he told me, and added that charges sometimes levelled in the press against the Muslims of the Triple Frontier are untrue. “We are not involved in terrorism,” he said. Many of the Muslims who once worshipped in the mosque are afraid to visit now, he said, believing that it is under surveillance by Israel and the United States. Abdallah insisted that he himself had no connection to Hezbollah, but he conceded that, like other Lebanese businessmen, he had given money to the group. “Five years ago, people were expected to give twenty per cent of their income,” he said.
I asked him what he meant by “expected.”
“Right, expected,” he replied. A look of helplessness crossed his face. “What are people supposed to do?” he asked.
Abdallah would not elaborate, but, according to South American investigators and two Lebanese who once worked in the Triple Frontier, such donations were made under duress. At the beginning of each month, they said, a Hezbollah official named Sobhi Fayad or one of his associates would visit shops owned by Lebanese immigrants-Shiites, but also Sunni Muslims and Christians. The shop owner would be handed a certificate thanking him for the support he had provided to various Hezbollah-run charitable groups. A dollar amount would be written on each certificate-a South American investigator showed me one with the figure ten thousand dollars-and the shop owner would be expected to pay that sum. After that, the certificate would be put in his shopwindow-and no more “donations” would be sought for the remainder of the month. Otherwise, the shop owner would be warned, and then his relatives in Lebanon would be warned, that if they didn’t comply Hezbollah would spread rumors about them. “People would be told that they are spies for Israel,” one South American investigator told me. Some were beaten. “It’s a very effective system,” the investigator said.
The Fayad operation was expert in laundering money. According to intelligence documents provided to me by regional investigators, Hezbollah has used traders from India to move money from Paraguay to the Middle East. The documents referred to an Indian named Rajkumar Naraindas Sabnani, who does business in the Triple Frontier and in Hong Kong; investigators allege that he arranged to ship goods to Paraguay, receiving payment far in excess of their value. After subtracting his own fee and paying for the actual goods, Sabnani wired the surplus to banks in the United States or in Lebanon. Sabnani is believed to be currently in Hong Kong.
Abdallah, the founder of the Prophet Muhammad mosque, says that people in the Triple Frontier are giving less these days, because the region’s economy is in very poor shape. But investigators in South America and experts on the group nevertheless believe that the amount raised in South America over the years is in the tens of millions of dollars; according to one Paraguayan official, two years ago Hezbollah raised twelve million dollars in the Triple Frontier. Hezbollah’s annual budget is more than a hundred million dollars, provided by the Iranian government directly and by an international network of fund-raisers.
Besides Sobhi Fayad, several other figures in the Triple Frontier’s Arab community play important roles in raising money for Hezbollah. One of the most notorious is a fugitive: Ali Khalil Mehri, a man considered by Paraguayan authorities to be a leading distributor of pirated compact disks. According to Paraguayan investigators, Mehri left for Sao Paulo, Brazil, then moved on to Europe and, finally, to Lebanon, where he is today. Sobhi Fayad is in jail in Asuncion, the Paraguayan capital, awaiting trial on tax charges and on charges of associating with a criminal organization. Paraguay has no anti-terror law, and so it is not illegal to donate money to terrorist groups, as it is in the United States. “It’s exactly the same as Al Capone,” one investigator told me. “You have to get them on tax evasion.”
In the days following September 11th of last year, the Paraguayans arrested twenty-three people in the region of Ciudad del Este and in southern Paraguay on suspicion of involvement with Hezbollah or other organizations. But Carlos Altemburger, the chief of the Paraguayan Secretariat for the Prevention and Investigation of Terrorism, told me that most of these detainees have been released and many have left the country. Even though the Paraguayan government is considered among the most corrupt in South America, the terrorism secretariat is thought by American officials to be free of corruption. Altemburger told me that he would like the government to impose strict controls on the border region, which would make it more difficult for Hezbollah members who live in Brazil to travel so freely into Paraguay. His requests, he said diplomatically, are still being weighed by the government.
The openness of the borders in the Triple Frontier, as much as its free-for-all ethos, makes the region particularly inviting for terrorists. (When I ran into a bureaucratic problem entering Paraguay, I was advised to sneak in by riding a motorcycle with Brazilian plates, and wearing a helmet to disguise my face. It worked perfectly.) The open borders provide politicians and senior law-enforcement officials of the three nations with a ready excuse for the presence of terrorists in cities under their nominal control.
Joaquim Mesquita, the chief of the Brazilian Federal Police in Foz do Iguacu, dismissed the idea that his third of the Triple Frontier was a haven for terrorists. “We have a marijuana problem, and cigarette smuggling,” he said. But, he continued, “we don’t have any concrete evidence that this is a terrorist region.” In Asuncion, I met with the interior minister, a former chief of the national police named Victor Hermoza. “Most of the Arabs live on the Brazil side, I should point out,” Hermoza said, and added, “Anyway, the Arabs are all moving to Chile.”
Hermoza, who has an open, friendly face, insists that his country is doing everything it can to aid the American war on terror. In fact, he said, with a suggestion of pride, he takes his orders from American diplomats. “The national police cannot do anything without the American Embassy,” he said. “We rely on their intelligence.”
We met in his office at the Interior Ministry, in downtown Asuncion. Paraguay is small and poor, and perhaps best known for the longtime rule of Alfredo Stroessner, who made the country a hideout for Nazi fugitives, including Josef Mengele. Crime is rising, and the economy has been badly hurt by the collapses in Brazil and Argentina. Some Paraguayans have taken to spray-painting walls with the slogan “Stroessner Vuelve!,” or “Stroessner Will Return!” Stroessner was deposed in 1989, and now, at the age of eighty-nine, lives in exile in Brazil.
Hermoza, who began his career during Stroessner’s regime, suggests that the country is no different from its neighbors. “There’s corruption in all three of the countries” that share the Triple Frontier, he said. “Even America has corruption. That’s why you have internalaffairs departments in your police.”
I asked Hermoza why the Interior Ministry didn’t institute more stringent border controls. He listened to the story of my own illegal crossing, and said, “You’re probably going to have to pay an extra fee at the airport.” He did not seem bothered by the fact that a foreigner could sneak into his country by hiding inside a motorcycle helmet, but he said that he had raised the question of bridge security with local officials recently when he visited Ciudad del Este. “They showed me why they couldn’t do it,” he said. “They started to check cars, and within four or five minutes there was a line that was as long as the bridge.” Economic considerations would outweigh security needs for the time being.
Like Hezbollah, Al Qaeda does considerable fund-raising in Ciudad del Este, investigators told me, and they named the Al Qaeda point men as Ali Nizar Dahroug and his uncle. Ali Dahroug is in jail in Ciudad del Este awaiting trial on tax-evasion charges; his uncle is a fugitive. The Dahrougs came to the attention of local investigators when the uncle’s name was found in an address book belonging to the highest-ranking Al Qaeda official to be captured so far by the United States, Abu Zubaydah. According to investigators and intelligence files, Ali Dahroug owned a small perfume shop in Ciudad del Este. The entire enterprise was worth no more than two thousand dollars, so investigators were startled to learn that he was wiring as much as eighty thousand dollars each month to banks in the United States, the Middle East, and Europe. Hamas’s chief fund-raiser in the Triple Frontier is Ayman Ghotme, who collected funds for the Holy Land Foundation, a Texas-based organization that sent money to Hamas but was closed down by American officials after September 11th. Ghotme lives in Sao Paulo, according to investigators. But the dominant terror group in the region is Hezbollah, and its ability to carry out terror operations in South America, investigators say, is due to one man: Imad Mugniyah.
Until September 11th of last year, Mugniyah was considered by American officials to be the world’s most dangerous terrorist, and many terrorism experts still believe this to be true. For a decade, the American and Israeli governments have made repeated attempts to capture or kill him. The Israeli Air Force, which frequently dispatches fighter jets across Lebanon, has equipped many of its airplanes with advanced signal intelligence “packages,” and it uses these to track his whereabouts. Several years ago, the Israelis killed Mugniyah’s brother, and allegedly set a trap for Mugniyah at the funeral, but he didn’t appear. Some believe that he has had plastic surgery, and that, in recent years, he has not moved beyond Lebanon and Iran, for fear of capture. Sources told me that Mugniyah will not even travel through the Beirut airport, believing that paramilitary officers commanded by the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorist Center have the airport under permanent surveillance.
Mugniyah’s operation-known as the external security apparatus-is Hezbollah’s most lethal weapon. It is commonly believed that Mugniyah is behind nearly every major act of terrorism that has been staged by Hezbollah during the last two decades; he is thought to have agents not only in South America but in Europe, Southeast Asia, West Africa, and even the United States. His operatives in the Triple Frontier include Assad Ahmad Barakat, an important fund-raiser for Hezbollah. (Paraguayan police discovered a letter in which Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, thanked Barakat for his efforts on behalf of children orphaned when their fathers became suicide bombers.) Terrorism experts say that Ali Kassam, who runs a Shiite religious center in Foz, is a close contact of Mugniyah’s as well, and so is a sheikh named Bilal Mohsen Wehbi, a Lebanese who was trained in Iran, and who reports to the Iranian Cultural Affairs Ministry. The ministry often provides diplomatic cover for both Hezbollah operatives and Iranian intelligence agents. It is believed that Mugniyah takes orders from the office of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, but that he reports to a man named Ghassem Soleimani, the chief of a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps called Al Quds, or the Jerusalem Force-the arm of the Iranian government responsible for sponsoring terror attacks on Israeli targets.
Mugniyah is believed to have established European cells; in the nineteen-eighties, he recruited operatives in France and Germany. In South America, his reach goes beyond the Triple Frontier. A cell in Incarnacion, a city south of Ciudad del Este, was run until recently by a man named Karim Diab; a regional investigator said that Diab has been sent to Angola to start a Hezbollah cell there.
Unlike Osama bin Laden, Mugniyah does not give interviews or issue statements on the Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera. There are only two known photographs of Mugniyah, and even these have been called into question. He is believed to have been born in the Lebanese village of Tir Dibba, near Tyre, on July 12, 1962, into a prominent family; his father, Sheikh Muhammad Jawad Mugniyah, is thought to have been a Shiite scholar. According to Robert Baer, an ex-C.I.A. officer who spent a good part of his career tracking Mugniyah, even the basic details of his childhood are unknown to intelligence services. “Mugniyah systematically had all traces of himself removed,” Baer says. “He erased himself. He had his records removed from high school, and his passport application was stolen. There are no civil records in Lebanon with his name in them.”
By his middle teens, Mugniyah was a gun-carrying foot soldier in the Lebanese civil war, which began in 1975. He received his early training not with his fellow-Shiites, who were then unarmed and not very radicalized, but with Yasir Arafat and the Fatah movement of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Until 1982, when Arafat was expelled from Lebanon as a result of the Israeli invasion, his power was concentrated in South Lebanon, along the border with Israel, much as Hezbollah’s is today. Fatah maintained training camps not only for Palestinians but for members of other, international terror groups as well. Many of the Iranian Shiites who later overthrew the Shah were trained there.
Mugniyah became a member of Arafat’s personal bodyguard unit, Force 17. (It still exists in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.) In the early nineteen-eighties, after the P.L.O.’s departure from Lebanon, Mugniyah became a bodyguard for Sayyid Muhammad Fadlallah, Hezbollah’s spiritual leader. Then, suddenly, according to Baer and another intelligence source, Mugniyah appeared, along with Hassan Nasrallah, as a central figure in the Islamic Jihad Organization, one of the names under which Hezbollah operated when, in the early eighties, it was still a clandestine group. The first major act of terrorism attributed to Mugniyah was the April, 1983, bombing of the United States Embassy in Beirut. Sixty-three people died, including six C.I.A. officers. It is believed that Mugniyah was involved in the simultaneous bombings, six months later, of the Marine barracks in Beirut, in which two hundred and forty-one died, and the French military barracks, a short distance away, in which fifty-eight died. Mugniyah is also thought to have been behind much of the hostage-taking in Lebanon in the mid-eighties, and some reports claim that he was personally involved in the torture of William Buckley, the C.I.A. Beirut station chief, who died in Hezbollah captivity. He has also been tied to the Khobar Towers bombing, in Saudi Arabia, six years ago, in which nineteen American servicemen were killed.
In 1985, two of Mugniyah’s men hijacked a T.W.A. airplane, a Boeing 727, on a scheduled run between Athens and Rome. Almost immediately after seizing control, the hijackers, Hassan Izz-al-Din and Muhammad Ali Hamadi, began searching the plane for American servicemen. They soon discovered a group of Navy divers and a thirty-eight-year-old Army Reserve major named Kurt Carlson.
The hijackers were demanding the release of Shiite prisoners in Kuwait and more than seven hundred Shiite prisoners in Israel. Their behavior was erratic; they forced the plane to land in Beirut, then go to Algiers, and then fly back to Beirut. In Beirut, Izz-al-Din and Hamadi executed one of the divers, Robert Stethem, and dumped his body on the airport tarmac.
Carlson today lives in Rockford, Illinois; he is a builder, a friendly, small-boned man, who talks easily about his experience. On the tarmac in Algiers, Carlson said, Hamadi would preach the virtues of the Shiite revolution in Iran from the cockpit window to whoever happened to be listening below. “Every time Hamadi said the name Khomeini, Izz-al-Din would kick me in the back,” Carlson said. Carlson was beaten steadily for several days, and his beatings intensified when the hijackers’ demands for fuel weren’t met. “They kept yelling, ‘One American must die, one American must die,’ ” he said.
At one point, Carlson was dragged into the cockpit. “All of a sudden, I felt a blow, and I heard the captain yelling, ‘They’re beating and killing Americans! I need fuel!’ Meanwhile, Hamadi was screaming in Arabic. He was hitting me with a steel pipe. When he got tired of hitting me with a pipe, he would drop-kick me two or three times. I wasn’t making any sound, but I realized that the captain had kept the mike open, and that he wanted me to make sounds, to convince the tower to get us fuel. So I started grunting.”
After the plane flew to Beirut the second time, American intelligence officials believe, Mugniyah boarded it; his fingerprints were reportedly identified in one of the bathrooms. American hostages were taken from the plane and dispersed around Beirut. Carlson, along with four of the surviving Navy divers, was put in the custody of the Shiite Amal militia, a less extreme radical group. The hostages were held in a basement, where they were subjected to mock executions and were fed intermittently.
“One day, we were told we had to speak to a visitor from Hezbollah,” Carlson recalled. “They took us into another room. There was a bunch of guys there. One was a short guy with a beard. He just looked at us. The Amal guys who were our guards kept close to us. I felt like they were trying to protect us. This guy started asking us questions. Where we’re from, what unit. All of a sudden, he let loose with a tirade. He spoke some English. I remember that his eyes were like glass. You could feel the hate coming out of him. He started screaming about the Israelis, how they’re supported by the U.S. The Israelis were so bad they wouldn’t consent to Red Cross visits to the Shiite prisoners. He was just screaming.
“One of the divers, Stuart Dahl, answered him,” Carlson went on. “He said, ‘If you believe in the rights of prisoners, you’ll let the Red Cross see us.’ This guy, the one who was screaming, just about fell over. He didn’t expect anyone to answer him. They started talking among themselves, the Hezbollah guys. Now, there was the guy just behind the one who was screaming. I hadn’t noticed him before. All of the Hezbollah guys turned to him. They spoke, and then he led them out of the room. I believe that that man was Imad Mugniyah.” After seventeen days, Carlson and the remaining four Americans were freed.
Argentine police believe that Hezbollah worked in concert with its Iranian sponsors to bomb the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992, an attack that killed twenty-nine people. Investigators suspect that Mugniyah may have visited the Triple Frontier two years later, when Hezbollah allegedly planned the suicide bombing of the Argentine-Jewish Mutual Association, or Jewish community center, known by its Spanish acronym, AMIA. The attack on the AMIA building, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack since the end of the Second World War, killed eighty-five people. The bombing profoundly disturbed Jewish communities throughout Latin America, and forced Jewish leaders to turn their synagogues and community centers into virtual fortresses. There are approximately two hundred thousand Jews in Argentina-it is South America’s largest Jewish community-and today, spurred by the worst economic crisis in the country’s history, many are leaving for Israel.
Twenty men have been on trial since late September of last year on charges related to the bombing, but these men-all of them Argentines-are considered by investigators to be secondary players in the attack. Alberto Nisman, one of the prosecutors, believes that the bombing succeeded in part because of lax oversight by the Paraguayan and Brazilian governments; Argentine officials believe that key participants in the attack entered Argentina through the Triple Frontier. Victor Hermoza, the Paraguayan interior minister, was skeptical. “The bomb could have been built anywhere,” he said, adding that he does not believe that Hezbollah maintains terror cells in Paraguay. But Hezbollah is so deeply rooted in the Triple Frontier that, one Paraguayan official said, he believes that the bomb was almost certainly built in the area of Ciudad del Este. “It’s impossible to believe that it wasn’t,” he said. “People were absolutely free here to do whatever they wanted.”
Argentine officials have openly accused Iran of involvement in the bombing, and they have accused Hezbollah of carrying it out (the court has identified the man believed to be the suicide bomber but his name has not yet been released). Four of the defendants are police officers, who are accused of collaborating with the bombers. Charges that the police force in Argentina harbors officers with anti-Semitic tendencies have circulated for years.
The trial is being held in an Art Deco-style theatre in the basement of a courthouse near the harbor of Buenos Aires. Heavy mauve drapes cover the walls, and bulletproof glass separates the spectators from the defendants. On the day that I visited, early this year, the building was watched by snipers in flak jackets and police on horseback. In the courtroom, a survivor of the bombing was describing what had happened when a white Renault van holding a six-hundred-pound bomb was driven into the seven-story AMIA building-and the explosion sheared off its front.
Earlier this year, it was disclosed that a man calling himself Abdolghassem Mesbahi, who claimed to be an Iranian intelligence official, had told investigators that former President Carlos Saul Menem of Argentina maintained close relations with Iran and took a ten-million-dollar bribe to cover up Iran’s involvement in the bombing. Menem, who is of Syrian descent, has denied the charge. He hopes to run again for President.
Lawyers for the Jewish community have used Mesbahi’s testimony, along with information gathered in Argentina and abroad, to construct a time line of activities leading up to the bombing. The head lawyer, Marta Nercellas, described to me a plot that was set in motion at 4:30 P.M. on August 14, 1993, in a Tehran office belonging to the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence. According to the time line, the Ministry, with the involvement of the minister, Ali Fallahian, asked a team made up of Lebanese Hezbollah operatives and its own agents, many of whom worked under diplomatic cover, to plan the attack.
An important figure in the plot, according to Nercellas and other investigators, was Mohsen Rabbani, an Iranian who was appointed to the Buenos Aires Embassy as a cultural attache just a few months before the bombing. Rabbani, who was barred from Argentina after evidence of his involvement began to emerge, is believed to have been a few blocks away from the AMIA building in the minutes before the attack.
Alberto Nisman hopes that information will come out during testimony that will allow Argentine authorities to pursue the actual conspirators, including Rabbani. But Nisman says that he is focussed on the man who they think orchestrated the bombing: Imad Mugniyah. Standing outside the courtroom during a recess, Nisman said, “Mugniyah would be the ultimate. That is our target.”
Not only Mugniyah has eluded capture; so have his associates. Hamadi, the T.W.A. hijacker believed by Carlson to have shot Robert Stethem, was captured several years ago in Germany, and he is now in prison there, but Izz-al-Din is, like Mugniyah, thought to be in either Lebanon or Iran.
The United States has come close to arresting Mugniyah at least twice. In 1985, American intelligence learned that Mugniyah was in Paris. According to Duane Clarridge, a former chief of the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorist Center, the French refused to help, apparently because they were negotiating with Mugniyah for the release of French hostages in Lebanon. Several years later, American officials informed the Saudi government that Mugniyah was due to arrive in Saudi Arabia; in an effort to keep the United States from acting against Mugniyah on Saudi soil, the Saudis refused to let the plane land.
When I spoke to Hezbollah officials in Beirut, they denied knowing anything about Mugniyah; Hezbollah’s allies call him a figment of the Israeli-influenced American imagination. Only one person in the Hezbollah orbit acknowledged even having heard of Mugniyah: the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a man named Ramadan Abdallah Shallah. Palestinian Islamic Jihad is closely allied with Hezbollah; both are on the payroll of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
In Damascus in February, I asked Shallah about Mugniyah and Hezbollah. Shallah is not unschooled in public relations. (Before becoming the leader of Islamic Jihad, he served as an adjunct professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.) He laughed when I asked about Mugniyah’s current role in Hezbollah. “That’s a name from history,” he said, before summarily ending the conversation.
The Prime Minister of Lebanon, Rafiq Hariri, told me that Mugniyah was not in his country. But in Lebanon it is rumored that Mugniyah sits on the eight-member ruling council of Hezbollah and that he is active under various names, including Jawad Nour-al-Din. Intelligence officials, while unsure-or unwilling to talk-about Mugniyah’s day-to-day operations, believe that he is in charge of Hezbollah’s worldwide network of cells. They also say that in recent years he has paid more attention to operations inside Israel. For instance, in 1996 a man whose passport identified him as Andrew Jonathan Neumann nearly killed himself when a bomb he was preparing in an East Jerusalem hotel detonated prematurely. Neumann, Israeli investigators learned, was a Lebanese Shiite named Hussein Mohammad Mikdad, who told the Israelis that he had been sent to Israel by Mugniyah to blow up a civilian airliner.
Mugniyah’s name came up early this year during the Karine-A affair, in which a ship loaded with Iranian weapons intended for the Palestinian Authority was intercepted by Israel in the Red Sea. Intelligence officials believe that Mugniyah helped organize the shipment, which suggests that he has maintained contacts with Yasir Arafat, his original employer.
Terrorism experts say that Mugniyah’s organization is hard to penetrate because it is in certain ways a family business. Many of the men under his command-there are thought to be several hundred-are from one of three Lebanese Shiite clans, one of which is his, and another that of a brother-in-law, Mustafa Badr-adeen. The men are trained in camps in the Bekaa Valley and Iran; intelligence sources told me that Mugniyah, in cooperation with Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, also has a base on the Iranian shore of the Caspian Sea, where his men are trained in SEAL-style operations. Although Mugniyah has concentrated on anti-Jewish activities, he is believed to have the capability to strike at America; his agents have conducted video surveillance of possible American targets in South America and Southeast Asia, and he is suspected of having established links with Al Qaeda. According to the testimony of Ali Mohamed, a former U.S. soldier who conspired in the Al Qaeda bombings of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and who trained Osama bin Laden’s security detail, Mugniyah met with bin Laden in Sudan in the mid-nineteen-nineties to discuss joint strategy. “Hezbollah provided explosives training for al Qaeda and al Jihad,” he said. “Iran supplied Egyptian Islamic Jihad with weapons. Iran also used Hezbollah to supply explosives that were disguised to look like rocks.”
Bush Administration officials have suggested that the United States will strike at Hezbollah in what some are calling “Phase Three” of the war on terror, and there is pressure within the government to settle accounts with Mugniyah. Any action taken against him, however, would almost certainly bring a Hezbollah response. After Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage declared, in September, that Hezbollah would eventually become an American target, the group’s chief spokesman, Hassan Ezzeddin, issued a statement on Nasrallah’s behalf. “The American administration will be held accountable for any offensive against Lebanon,” the statement read, “and we emphasize that we are in full readiness to confront any eventuality and defend our people.”
But others believe that Hezbollah might attack American interests regardless of American actions in Lebanon. “Any number of things could provoke Hezbollah,” Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, says. For example, Iran could activate Hezbollah terror cells to carry out attacks. The Iranians might do this, Hoffman and others say, if they felt threatened by America’s anti-terror campaign. “We see our role as bringing stability, and in situations like Lebanon stability rewards the status quo,” he told me. “Stability is anathema to a revolutionary movement like Hezbollah.”
One intelligence official suggested that Iran sees Mugniyah’s overseas network as a kind of life insurance. “If Iran becomes the focus of Phase Three, it could send a message to the U.S. that it is not like Iraq, that it has the means to strike us at home, with a network of cells that it placed here a long time ago,” he said. “The Iranians wouldn’t take credit for blowing up a McDonald’s, but we would know, and they would know we know.”
It is not unusual for the JR Tobacco warehouse in Statesville, North Carolina, to sell cigarettes in great quantities. Federal law allows a person to buy up to two hundred and ninety-nine cartons of cigarettes at one time, and few people in North Carolina, a tobacco-growing state, object. Still, in the mid-nineteen-nineties, when a group of olive-skinned men began visiting JR Tobacco, carry-ing shopping bags filled with cash and walking out with two hundred and ninety-nine cartons each, Bob Fromme, an off-duty detective with the Iredell County Sheriff’s Office who was working as a security guard at the warehouse, found it worthy of note.
“I thought they were Mexicans at first,” Fromme told me. “There was a group of six of them who would come in on a regular basis. They would go through the store, get the cigarettes, one guy would stand at the register, and each person would then get two hundred and ninety-nine cartons. The one guy would just keep paying for all of them.” Fromme said he realized that these men were not speaking Spanish: “I knew soon enough that it was Arabic.”
On his own time, Fromme began following the men, and trying to interest law-enforcement agencies in what he thought was a gang of cigarette smugglers. “I called the state attorney general’s office and told them what we had, but they didn’t want the case,” Fromme said. “The State Bureau of Investigation didn’t want it, either.”
But the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms opened an investigation, and brought Fromme into it. “In the spring of 1999, we were set to go, with searches and warrants and indictments,” Fromme said. “Then the F.B.I. came and said, ‘We’re working these guys from a different angle. Give us everything you’ve got. We can’t tell you what we’re doing.’ “
Fromme and the A.T.F. investigators soon learned what the F.B.I. knew: that the smugglers, led by a Lebanese immigrant, Mohamad Youssef Hammoud, were members of a Hezbollah cell in Charlotte, North Carolina, that in the course of a year and a half sold $7.9 million worth of cigarettes illegally in Michigan and sent some of the profits to Hezbollah in Lebanon. About a year after the F.B.I. entered the picture, ten members of the ring were arrested on racketeering charges. Eight of the ten pleaded guilty before going to trial; in June, a federal jury found Hammoud guilty of providing aid to a terrorist organization.
According to Kenneth Bell, the lead prosecutor, the case was built this way: Mohamad Hammoud ran a prayer meeting every Thursday-a meeting attended by Said Harb, a longtime friend of a man named Mohamad Hassan Dbouk. Dbouk was receiving instructions from Hassan Hilu Laqis, a Hezbollah official based in Lebanon, who was in charge of Hezbollah’s North American procurement operation. A fax intercepted by Canadian intelligence suggested that Dbouk worked for Imad Mugniyah. In the fax, Dbouk “is assuring Laqis that he is doing everything he can” for Hezbollah, Bell told me. “At one point, he says that he is willing to do anything-and he says, ‘I mean anything’-for someone they refer to as ‘the father.’ I believe ‘the father’ is a reference to Mugniyah.” Dbouk was indicted in the North Carolina case, but he is now thought to be in Lebanon.
According to the indictment, Hezbollah officials in Lebanon asked the cell members in North America to buy such items as computers, night-vision equipment, mine-detection devices, global-positioning devices, and advanced aircraft-analysis software. Bell said he did not know how much of the equipment requested by Hezbollah was shipped to Lebanon. Wiretaps revealed that Hezbollah members discussed buying life-insurance policies for operatives who “might in a short period of time go for a ‘walk’ and ‘never come back,’ ” the indictment reads.
The North Carolina operation is not the only Hezbollah cell to have been discovered in the United States. Asa Hutchinson, the director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told me recently that his agents discovered a drug-trafficking ring in the Midwest that was sending some of its proceeds to Hezbollah.
There is no proof that the cells are capable of violent acts. But investigators in North Carolina found anti-American propaganda among the belongings of several of the cell members. “I believe that the structure was in place to carry out a command,” the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, Bob Conrad, says. Among the items investigators found when they broke up the Charlotte group was a series of photographs taken in Washington, D.C. In one of them, a member of the cell stands in front of the Washington Monument, smiling. In another, two members are posing in front of the White House.
(This is the second part of a two-part article.)