Information pieced together by the Forward from documents and interviews provide a rare glimpse into the hunt for a dead terrorist suspect, featuring cooperation and tensions between intelligence services and investigators as well as a possible cover-up operation by Hezbollah.
In late 1999, Argentina launched secret operation “Gaviota,” with the aim of recruiting informants within Hezbollah to provide information about the presence of radical Islamist networks in the lawless tri-border area where Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil meet.
After a former Hezbollah operative living in the area gave U.S. intelligence some information about a 1985 plot against a TWA plane, Argentine officials asked their American counterparts to pump their source for information about the bombing of the AMIA community center, Argentine intelligence and judicial sources said. The Americans acceded to the demand, prompting Argentina’s intelligence service to launch another operation, “Centauro.”
The informant was sent to his native Lebanon and came up with a potential asset in the persons of a cousin nicknamed Caiman and a disgruntled former member of Hezbollah. Both men were monitored, investigated and polygraphed, and eventually the informant lured Caiman to South America, where he agreed to collaborate. In June 2001, Argentine officials and an FBI agent in Montevideo, Uruguay, debriefed him.
At that meeting, held in a safe house June 9 and 10, Caiman, identified in Argentine documents as Bassam Nassri Chamas, told his interlocutors that a senior Hezbollah official had told him years before that Berro was the suicide driver who blew up the AMIA building, according to a copy of the transcript of an affidavit signed by Caiman that was obtained by the Forward. He identified the Hezbollah official as Abu Mohamad Yassin and said they had lived in the same town in Lebanon; he also said that the Hezbollah agent told him that a certain “Brru” was the suicide bomber who carried out the AMIA attack.
When Chamas countered that Brru had in fact been killed in an operation in South Lebanon, Yassin repeated his assertion about his role in the AMIA operation and explained Hezbollah’s deception operations, according to the transcript. Yassin also said the suicide driver and other members of the team that carried out the AMIA bombing had used European passports for their travels.
Caiman was sent back to Lebanon to gather additional information. He was to be paid a $1,500 per month stipend.
But the operation was aborted due to a government change in Argentina and a nasty internecine fight between competing sectors of the country’s intelligence service. This dispute led to a breakdown in relations with the CIA after the picture of its station chief in Buenos Aires was leaked to the press.
In recent years, cooperation with the Americans picked up again, leading to last week’s announcement.