By Todd Bensman
In May 2018, Panamanian President Juan Varela issued a public promise that briefly made international headlines and was much heralded: After nearly 25 years, Panama would open a full investigation into the mid-air bombing of Alas Chiricanas Flight 901, which killed 22 Panamanians, including 12 of that country’s leading Jewish businessmen.
The promise of investigation into an unattributed bombing mystery, all but forgotten outside Panama, came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ahead of a diplomatic meeting last year with Panamanian President Juan Varela, gave him specific intelligence information ascribing the tragedy to the terrorist group Hezbollah and its patron Iran.
No world government had ever acknowledged the downing of Flight 901 as an Islamic terror attack, even though it happened one day after Iran-Hezbollah bombed the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AIMA) building in Buenos Aires, killing 85 civilians, most of them Argentinian Jews, and injuring 300. In contrast with Panama, Argentina eventually mounted thorough, though troubled, investigations of the AMIA attack and a 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. These exposed for the first time the extent of Iranian-Hezbollah projection of power into the Western Hemisphere and its operating methods via clandestine support cells, local expatriate sympathizers, and Iranian embassies used for diplomatic cover.
But months of requests by the authors of this report for an update on the Panamanian investigation’s progress ran into an apparent determination to not speak of it, either on or off the record, with or without attribution. After a January 2019 report by Todd Bensman from Panama casting initial doubt that the promised investigation got underway, the Middle East Forum funded additional reporting efforts by the Spanish-speaking Uruguayan-Israeli journalist Jana Beris, who continued to seek confirmation in Israel and in Panama through the summer of 2019.
But neither journalist could obtain any such confirmation from any quarter during continuing 2019 reporting efforts, to include government channels in both countries in addition to Panama’s Jewish community, local journalists, and elected political party leaders.
What is all but confirmed instead is that the promised investigation was never launched.
“I think silence, both from the Israeli and Panamanian side, is the message,” Beris observed after her effort.
The questions now become, does it matter? And if so, why?
President Varela left office in July due to constitutional term limitations, his administration rebuffing repeated requests for confirmation that an investigation was ever started and, if it did, how it was progressing.
Panama’s small Jewish community of 15,000, which has long nursed its wound from Flight 901 in private, has messaged newly seated Panamanian president, Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo, that it remains interested in having the investigation. While Panamanian officials of the outgoing Varela government did not provide answers to numerous inquiries from September 2018 through the time they left office July 1, it appeared too early for the incoming new government to do so. Varela’s ambassador to Israel noted in late August, for instance, that a new Attorney General had not yet been appointed, who once seated, could eventually respond to questions about Flight 901.
For now, the only small recompense with which Jewish leaders are left is to work with a national committee to build a Flight 901 memorial. It also now feels it has the top cover, finally, to speak publicly of the loss in terms rarely used before Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 2018 intelligence gift.
“Our fallen did not die,” declared David Djemal, president of the Anti-Defamation Commission of B’nai B’rith Panama, at a public remembrance ceremony of the bombing’s 25th anniversary on July 18.
“They were killed.”
The Rise and Fall of Flight 901 and a Promise
Twelve of 19 passengers on board Alas Chiricanas Airlines Flight 901 were leading Jewish business leaders. All aboard, including three crew members, died when the aircraft exploded shortly after takeoff from Enrique Jimenez airport in the Caribbean port of Colon on the short commuter shuttle to Panama City. No one claimed responsibility for the bombing, or for the AMIA bombing the day before in Argentina. For a time, the FBI investigated but soon ran so short of leads that it turned to the public for help.
According to a July 1994 FBI call for public leads, all of the deceased passengers and crew were claimed except for one body “possibly” identified as Ali Hawa Jamal, who was suspected of carrying a bomb aboard the aircraft.
At the time, the FBI believed Jamal was with a support team of “unknown Middle Eastern males” from Lebanon linked to South American weapons traffickers and who, with a stolen American credit card some six weeks before the bombing, financed vehicle rentals and the purchase of a Motorola two-way radio communications device that Jamal had on the flight. The vehicles were later found abandoned near Tocumen Airport in Panama City.
The FBI thought the attack was linked to “a terrorist group or terrorist groups” following the extremist ideology of Ansar Allah, a violent Shia extremist movement rooted in Sidon, Lebanon and Houthi tribes in Yemen, which still hold financial, operational and ideological links to Hezbollah and Iran. But that’s as far as any investigation went. A competing theory held that drug cartels in neighboring Colombia, which had used similar tactics to eliminate rivals or debtors, might have contracted the job out to eliminate perceived enemies aboard the flight.
The mystery of Flight 901 was left in that stasis until the Israeli prime minister sent a private November 2017 letter to President Varela outlining Israeli intelligence information ahead of a planned state visit by Varela to Israel scheduled for May 2018. After the state visit, both leaders publicly revealed that Israel’s new information had all but solved the bombing. It was a Hezbollah terror attack just like the Argentina attacks, they both indicated at a joint press briefing during that visit.
“Thank you for that information, which I shared with the families,” the Panamanian president told Netanyahu. “And I will keep following that case, to make sure that justice is done.”
Later in Panama, Varela told local reporters he would ask local and international authorities to reopen the investigation “given intelligence reports that clearly show it was a terrorist attack.”
Why Panama Might Have Changed Course
Clues as to why Panama has so mysteriously chosen a path other than the one promised lay in the Argentine experience following its 1992 and 1994 terrorist bombing attacks. Both attacks are thought to have been ordered to avenge the February 1992 Israeli assassination by Apache attack helicopters of Sheik Abbas Musawi, Hezbollah’s internally beloved secretary-general, who had orchestrated a sharp increase in deadly cross-border attacks on Israel, according to the book “Lightning Out of Lebanon” by journalists Tom Diaz and Barbara Newman.
For years after the 1992 and 1994 attacks, early and later investigations were tormented by diplomatic influence campaigns carried out by Iran and its allies from outside Argentina, and also from inside by powerful political Middle East diaspora communities. The pressure was relentless on those first early investigations, leading to abusive political interferences to steer outcomes away from Iran or its local sympathizers. These government disruption efforts came amid suddenly soaring new trade deals with Iran worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Argentina.
By 2009, government corruption investigations related to the Iranian trade deals and political interference led to charges against former President Carlos Menem, who was of Syrian descent, and 13 senior government officials that they had systematically interfered with those early investigations to protect local Arab community members thought to have participated in the bombings. The initial investigations in Argentina produced widely ridiculed and patently improbable conclusions that had to be thrown out.
New investigations were started – and those, too, were followed by political interference from new Argentinian political leaders.
In 2007, special prosecutor Alberto Nisman finally brought a 900-page indictment to Interpol, the global law enforcement organization, which granted red notice warrants for some of Iran’s highest-ranking officials.
Government obstructionism, fueled by Iranian and European pressures, led to new corruption investigations. In 2015, Nisman was murdered hours before he was to publicly present evidence that President Christina de Kirchner and Iran had conspired to shut down his investigations to cinch a new Iranian grain-for-oil deal. In 2017, on the strength of the murdered Nisman’s corruption probe, she was indicted for treason related to her alleged participation in the conspiracy with Iran, which has long denied involvement in corrupting Argentine government officials or in participating in the bombings.
So why not Panama?
Lucrative Iranian trade deals. Diplomatic pressure campaigning by Iran. Internal pressure from powerful Arab diaspora communities whose members helped with the attacks. Massive payoffs to government officials. Two indicted former presidents. A murdered special prosecutor.
Back in Panama, of course, there is no hint that any such oppositional activities occurred after President Varela issued a promise that made international headlines. However, it would not be hard to imagine that Iran, influential allies such as Russia, and Panama’s Lebanese business community also might have applied the same tactics to persuade Panamanian leaders to kill an embryonic investigation into who ordered and carried out the destruction of Flight 901, and why. Panama’s expatriate population of some 9,000 or 10,000 citizens of Lebanese descent are said to be successful in business and influential in government. It may not want to know more about the “unknown Middle Eastern” men the FBI said had rented trucks and bought a Motorola radio for the Flight 901 bomber.
But even absent an Argentina-style influence campaign for the Panamanian government to ice the promised investigation, it’s also quite possible the government merely looked at Argentina’s 20-year-long train wreck and decided, quite on its own, not to expose the small country to a similarly traumatic experience.
As for Israel’s uncharacteristic silence about a chance to damage the Hezbollah brand, the restraint can be reasonably explained as an exercise is diplomatic deference to a sensitive situation for an allied nation.
‘We are close to you; how close you wouldn’t know’: Why a Panama investigation matters
The evident failure to seize an investigative opportunity offered by Flight 901 matters in ways that are material to current United States foreign security policy and to a global effort among nations to counter nefarious activities by Hezbollah and Iran. Consider the largely unacknowledged ways that Argentina’s investigation has been used to expand knowledge of Hezbollah-Iran operations in South America and informed the U.S. ability to disrupt them there.
Joseph Humire, Executive Director of the Center for a Secure and Free Society and an expert on Latin American security affairs, said Nisman’s final report on the Buenos Aires bombings has withstood the test of time and retained a high value to the rest of the world, even though no one has yet to be brought to justice.
“For anyone who wants to understand how Hezbollah and Iran operate in Latin America, that’s the blueprint,” Humire said of the Nisman investigation in a telephone interview from the tri-border region of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil, where he was attending a security conference partly about Hezbollah’s footprint in the region.
While none of those indicted have been arrested or brought to justice, these investigations into long-ago 1990s terrorist acts matter today. Just last month, on the anniversary of the 1994 AIMA bombing, the Nisman report was cited as justification for Argentina to formally designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The designation enables Argentina to lawfully attack Hezbollah’s South American operations alongside the United States.
And that was just the most recent action to grow from Argentina’s Hezbollah investigations. The U.S. State Department in 2017 issued a report explicitly crediting Argentina’s Iran-Hezbollah investigations with prompting counterterrorism penal system reforms, new approaches to combating terrorism financing and a modernization of security and intelligence capabilities. These are being applied in Argentina’s lawless hinterlands and ungoverned parts of neighboring countries where Hezbollah’s criminal enterprises are concentrated. U.S. State Department reporting say the group derives significant strength from the drugs and weapons trade in many South American countries such as Venezuela, Peru, and Bolivia.
But what of Central America, much closer to the United States? The shuttering of a Panama investigation means the loss of a rare opportunity to expand knowledge about Iran and Hezbollah even closer to America’s southern gate, where it may well involve different groups of supporters, means and methods, and criminal activity preferences.
This is not a stale matter of 1990s circumstances; in about 2007, Iran established itself firmly in Nicaragua, with almost no media interest or public reporting as to its regional activities in the years since. As well, current New York and Michigan prosecutions of Hezbollah’s intelligence wing in the United States recently revealed that an intelligence operative was tracked as recently as 2011 and 2012 to Panama, where he collected information on targets such as Panama Canal shipping and successfully delivered it back to handlers in Lebanon, where it still obviously resides.
By contrast with Argentina’s Nisman-inspired new counterterror laws and efforts, Panama failed even to pass an anti-terrorism statute as proposed in 2015.
At a time when U.S.-demanded global economic sanctions against Iran have led to saber-rattling, seized oil tankers, and shot down drones, the opportunity costs of shuttering the Flight 901 investigation should not be allowed to pass in silence, without notice or discussion.
A case in point for the need to know more about Hezbollah-Iran in Central America came last summer when Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps General Ghasem Soleimani warned President Trump after a testy exchange: “Mr. Gambler, Trump! I’m telling you that we are close to you, exactly where, you wouldn’t think that we are.”