By Florencia Montaruli
December 22, 2020
In mid-November, the Argentine Embassy in the United Kingdom received an anonymous tip-off that chemical products used for making explosives had arrived in Argentina through the Tri-Border area and may be used to target the country’s Jewish community in a terrorist attack.
On Friday, November 13, a message was received by one of the Embassy’s social media accounts (although it was not specified which) alerting them to the fact that a quantity of ammonium nitrate would shortly be smuggled into the country. Ammonium nitrate was the base for the explosives used in the bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA, a Jewish Community Center) on July 18, 1994, which killed 85 people, and also caused the devastating explosion in the Port of Beirut, Lebanon, in September this year.
The source further warned that the target was the Jewish community, and that the bomb-making components would be smuggled into Argentina by a person from Paraguay.
The Prime Suspect
Interpol released a report on its investigations after a formal complaint was lodged by the Argentine Embassy in the United Kingdom. According to this update, so far the only person to have been arrested in connection with the incident is Hassan Zein Aldeen, a 38-year-old Lebanese citizen who has lived in Paraguay for several years..
Zein Aldeen’s name had explicitly been mentioned in the tip-off that the Argentine Embassy received. Written without spaces, the message says in one of its sections: “Hassan zeinaldeenmoving nitro ammonium from Encarnación to Posadas”, “bigbombswillgo off in argentina targetingthejewishcommunity”. The first part of the message indicates that this possible subject is moving ammonium nitrate from the city of Encarnación, a city located in Paraguay, to Posadas, in Argentina.
Hassan Zein Aldeen has tried to enter to Argentina four times in recent years: in 2010, 2013, 2016 and 2017. According to the report he had never succeeded because he was prohibited from leaving Paraguay by a court order. He had apparently attempted to justify himself by saying he was traveling to Argentina “to visit a girlfriend”.
Hezbollah’s Base of Operations in the Tri–Border area
IranWire has previously written about Hezbollah’s activities in the Tri-Border area, a crime-blighted zone at the intersection of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. It has a radius of 20 kilometers and an area of 200 square kilometers, and encompasses three cities, one from each of the neighboring countries: Puerto Iguazú in Argentina, Foz de Iguazú in Brazil and Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. In 2001, intelligence sources identified for the first time a group of Lebanese residents who were working for Hezbollah. Money laundering, extortion, and drug trafficking are some of the illicit activities that commonly take place in this zone, sometimes on behalf of Hezbollah. Matthew Levitt, a senior researcher at US think-tank the Washington Institute, has estimated that Hezbollah’s operations in the Tri-Border area generate between US$10 and $12 million dollars a year.
Due to successive waves of migration in the 19th century, more than 90 percent of the population in the Tri-Border area today is of Lebanese origin, including the prime suspect in the recent alleged transportation of ammonium nitrate. The presence of so many people of Lebanese origin in this part of South America makes it an attractive location for Hezbollah to concentrate its activities on the continent.
Could Hezbollah be Linked to the November 2020 Bomb Threat?
Ammonium nitrate is a chemical fertilizer but is also commonly used in making explosives. Intelligence reports from around the world have suggested that this and other substances have been stockpiled and used by Hezbollah, which is designated as a terrorist organization in many countries.
Leah Soibel is the founder and CEO of Fuente Latina, an international non-profit that aims to provide accurate information to the Hispanic world about the geopolitics of the Middle East. She believes the link between ammonium nitrate and Hezbollah has been more direct since the explosion at the port of Beirut, which took place in a warehouse owned by Hezbollah in which a vast quantity of ammonium nitrate had been stored some years before. Not only this, she says, but “Hezbollah’s leader, Hasan Nasrallah, threatened a few days after the Beirut Port explosion to use that arsenal against Israel. With these latest events, it is understood that Hezbollah is not only a dangerous element for Israel, with its constant threat of 150,000 Iranian missiles against the country, but also threatens many other places in the world.”
Argentina was a target of threats by Hezbollah many years ago, and seems to be so again today. In the early 1990s, two terrorist incidents rocked Argentina. The first was a suicide bomb attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, on March 17, 1992. Two years later, another explosion occurred on July 18, 1994, this time at the Buenos Aires headquarters of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA, a Jewish community center), which killed 85 people and wounded more than 300 others.
Immediately after each of these attacks were carried out, groups linked to Hezbollah claimed responsibility. The armed wing of the Lebanese Islamic Jihad Organization – which is now known to have been a nom de guerre for Hezbollah – was ultimately found responsible for the Israeli Embassy bombing by the Argentine Supreme Court of Justice. In the aftermath of the AMIA bombing, a group known as Ansar Allah (Supporters of God, thought to be another Hezbollah front) issued a statement reiterating “the need to combat Zionism anywhere in the world”.
According to a September 2020 report by the US State Department, the Shiite organization has been detected moving significant quantities of ammonium nitrate through European countries. Nathan Sales, a lawyer currently serving as the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism, confirmed that since 2012, Hezbollah had been able to establish stockpiles of ammonium nitrate across Europe. “We have every reason to believe that this activity is fully under way,” he said.
A few days after the threat message to the Argentine Embassy in UK, Paraguayan police seized a quantity of dynamite gel in the city of Encarnación. The explosives were divided into 12 rounds of one and a half kilograms each. If ignited, the blast wave could have reached a radius of 500 meters. So far, the parties responsible for this cache of explosives have not been identified.
Despite authorities being on high alert, however, so far the only named suspect in this case is out of custody after giving a statement to police. The alleged explosive material has not been found. Members of the Argentine Federal Police’s anti-terrorist investigation team are still probing the incident together with immigration officials.
Whether the supposed ammonium nitrate shipment was eventually smuggled into Argentina is not yet known. But what is evident is that terrorist activity in the Tri-Border area continues to pose a serious threat. Although an incident on the scale of the AMIA bombing seems to be a long way off, threats of terrorist attacks continue to emerge. Whether Hezbollah has anything to do with these events has yet to be confirmed but all the information released by security and anti-terrorism bodies do indicate a link to Hezbollah, as the only terrorist organization that has made the Tri-Border its base of operations and illegal business in South America.