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COLUMN ONE : Hezbollah: The Latin Connection : Bombings in Argentina and Panama prompt concern over the radical group's growing presence in the region. Experts say lax security and porous borders create a prime base for terrorists.

August 04, 1994|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUENOS AIRES — The convention hall near the National Congress was festooned with flags bearing Islamic symbols and posters of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock shrine. About 100 Argentine right-wing activists and Shiite Muslims filled the audience. In the front row sat diplomats from the Iranian Embassy.

The embassy's cultural affairs officer, Imam Mohsen Rabbani, rose. "Israel," he intoned in accented Spanish, "must disappear from the face of the Earth." He and a dozen speakers who followed quoted Iran's late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and called for unity in the fight against Zionism and the satanism of the West.

Such rhetoric and trappings would not be unusual in the Middle East. But this was the other side of the world: downtown Buenos Aires, three years ago.

Rabbani's activities in Argentina are attracting new attention in the wake of the terrorist bombing last month that killed nearly 100 people at a Jewish community center. That suicide bombing, an airliner bombing in Panama the next day, a 1992 attack that destroyed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and other incidents in recent years point to what U.S. officials and security experts believe is a little-noticed presence of radical Islamic groups in Latin America.

The Rabbani meeting, described for The Times by people who were present, has not been tied to any act of violence. And both Rabbani and the leaders of Argentina's small Shiite community have condemned the bombings. But officials here are now questioning whether Iranian diplomats such as Rabbani have had a role in indoctrinating or aiding terrorists, who can use Latin America's lax security to their advantage.

The armed branch of Hezbollah, the fundamentalist Party of God based in Lebanon, and other violent groups are thought to have been planting agents and recruiting sympathizers in Latin America since the mid-1980s, using the general flow of mainstream Arab and Muslim immigrants as cover, terrorism experts say.

Of the millions worldwide who hold the Muslim faith, only a small percentage are fundamentalists, and an even smaller number are extremists who advocate violence.

Although proof is still being accumulated, American and Israeli officials have blamed the two Argentina bombings on Hezbollah, which has been exchanging blows with Israel in Lebanon for more than a decade. A legal political party that has militant wings, Hezbollah is also suspected in two bombings in London last month. Its political leaders deny involvement.

Many parts of Latin America make an ideal landscape for terrorists: porous borders; inept law enforcement combined with weak investigative skills; large Jewish, Arab and other communities drawn from conflict-ridden parts of the world; established rings of smugglers, drug traffickers and arms merchants, and entrenched traditions of corruption. In Argentina, a long string of anti-Semitic attacks has gone virtually unpunished for nearly two decades.

"Hezbollah is mainly engaged in terrorism in Europe and the Middle East, but it has migrated to Latin America," said Robert Kupperman, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "There are a lot of Israelis (in Latin America)--a lot of targets--and it's a springboard to the United States. . . . The purpose behind the (latest) bombings is that Hezbollah wants to show it has a long arm and can reach anywhere."

Argentina has the largest Jewish community in Latin America, at about 250,000; the population of Arab descendants is more than triple that number.

The scope of Hezbollah's ability to attack in Latin America is not known. The actual membership may be quite small, and little hard evidence of the clandestine group's activities is available. But investigators and intelligence specialists cite the following factors in addition to the two Argentina blasts:

* The day after Buenos Aires' seven-story Jewish community center was reduced to rubble on July 18, a suicide bomber said to be Lebanese and unable to speak Spanish or English boarded a commuter flight in Colon, Panama, near the Atlantic end of the Panama Canal. When he detonated the bomb, all 21 people aboard were killed, including 12 Jewish and Israeli businessmen, and three U.S. citizens.

* In a report earlier this year, Argentine intelligence identified the jungle region at the border with Paraguay and Brazil as a potential base of operation for Middle Eastern terrorists. The area has an estimated 30,000 Lebanese Shiites, many there illegally. The car and explosives used in the 1992 embassy attack were reportedly traced to the region.

"They (Hezbollah radicals) have the capability to do something in Brazil, probably Caracas (Venezuela), and I'd say most of the major urban areas of Latin America," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former senior CIA officer who is an international security consultant in Washington.

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