On the run since 1997, Iranian cleric Mohsen Rabbani remains on Interpol's most-wanted list for his role in two Iranian bomb plots targeting Israeli and Jewish sites in Buenos Aires. The 1992 Israeli embassy and 1994 Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) bombings killed 115 people. Nonetheless, the cleric's influence in the region is back in full force thanks to a new local network and an Iranian university that Canada targeted for sanctions last month.
Rabbani has been called "Iran's principal proselytizer in Latin America." His networks serve several purposes, including amplifying Iran's propaganda in friendly countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and facilitating travel for Iranian agents posing as meat inspectors, airline crews, and clerics.
Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) that "Rabbani's current network in Latin America is the result of his meticulous strategy that began in the 1990s."
"Thanks to substantial funding from Iran, Rabbani was able to establish a spreading hydra with a completely local leadership capable of operating freely throughout the region without Rabbani's physical presence," Ottolenghi said.
Rabbani serves as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's personal representative to Latin America. In this capacity, he manages the Islam Oriente Cultural Institute, whose mission is to publish reading material in Portuguese and Spanish and strengthen ties between Iran and the region. The institute is associated with Al Mustafa International University (AMU), which has become the center of Iran's Latin American influence operations.
The AMU network helped two members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Quds Force agents travel to Colombia in 2021. They planned to murder a former Israeli agent living in Bogota in retaliation for the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
The U.S. Treasury sanctioned AMU in 2020, followed by Canada last month, for hosting and training Shia Pakistani and Afghan militias in Syria to support the Assad regime. According to the Treasury, AMU "serves as an international recruitment network for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF)," which leads Iran's terrorist operations outside Iran.
AMU was established in Qom, Iran, in 2007 under Khamenei's direct supervision. Behind the university's facade, Tehran recruits supporters, promotes its influence, gathers intelligence, and links with like-minded leaders and political movements. The objective is to disseminate Islamic revolution ideals and gain friends to shift regional policies in an anti-American direction.
While AMU's Latin American headquarters are located in Caracas, Venezuela, and Bogota, Colombia, its cultural centers are scattered across Latin America, including Cuba, which is known for its opposition to religious liberty.
One man, Edgardo Rubén Assad, has set up more than 20 cultural centers in Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Central America. Assad, also known as Sheikh Suhail Assad, was handpicked by Rabbani to be one of Iran's fixers in the region. Assad was born in Argentina, the son of Lebanese immigrants. He lives in Qom but frequently travels to Latin America, and with Rabbani's son-in-law, Sheikh Ahmad Qomi.
In 2015, Argentina's top prosecutor Alberto Nisman claimed that Assad's family provided Iran access to powerful groups in Argentina. Assad, along with his brother-in-law Abdul Karim Paz, and Assad's cousin Jorge Alejandro "Yussuf" Khalil, assisted Tehran "in advancing the 2013 Iran Pact." According to Nisman, Iran used Assad's inroads to hatch a plan with then-President Cristina Kirchner to clear Iranians accused of the AMIA attack – including Rabbani – in exchange for commercial benefits, such as agricultural exports and oil imports.
AMU's strategy in Latin America also cultivates alliances with local political activists. For example, it gives voice to indigenous claims, such as those of Mapuche communities in Chile, and local associations, such as the Plurinational Association of Reservists of the Tahuantinsuyo (ASPRET), which seeks the return of Incan control to Peru's government.
Sheikh Suhail Assad has visited El Salvador several times since 2013 in order to establish a local network. By opening the country's first Islamic center, he could engage in anti-American political dialogue with the Marxist guerrilla movement Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. It has then evolved into a political party whose leader, Salvador Sánchez Ceren, was elected president in 2014.
Assad's move was shrewd. Sánchez Ceren played a crucial role in establishing links with Iran and other Central American countries, which are now entangled with Hizballah's operations. For example, Dearborn, Mich. resident Samer el Debek was arrested in 2017 and his case is still pending in U.S. courts for allegedly scouting targets for Hizballah. Debek went to Panama to locate the U.S. and Israeli embassies for potential attacks and to determine vulnerabilities on the Panama Canal. Prosecutors say Hizballah also trained him to make bombs.
In Peru, one of Assad's disciples, Edwar Husain Quiroga Vargas, a Shiite Muslim convert who studied with Rabbani in Qom in 2009, founded Partido de Dios, which translates to "party of God," which also is Hizballah's name in Arabic. Inkarry Islam, Vargas' Shia Islamic cultural institute in the Apurimac region, has been suspected of recruiting locals for Hizballah.
Vargas became one of the main campaign backers of Peru's Marxist President Pedro Castillo. "We must fight against neoliberal imperialist colonization," he told an interviewer in 2020, "but we have only one enemy: Zionism, which takes everything in its path like a filthy pig."
He was arrested in August with 19,000 dynamite cartridges. He is currently free while awaiting trial.
According to the Argentine news outlet Infobae, Vargas obstructed the trial of an alleged Hizballah member charged with forgery. Mohamad Ghaleb Hamdar was detained in Lima in 2014. Authorities found detonators and explosives in his home. Hamdar is free in Peru, awaiting a second trial on terrorism accusations that may be dropped, thanks to Vargas.
In Chile, journalist Pablo Jofré Leal, who works for Rabbani's Islam Oriente Institute, has joined the new socialist government of Gabriel Boric as an adviser. From this new position, in a video for the Spanish-language Iranian channel Hispan TV, Leal stated that "the only way to eliminate Zionism is to eliminate its representatives, condemning them in international tribunals, Nuremberg-style, but in Jerusalem." To the Palestinians, Leal calls for "a rain of bullets against Israeli military installations, nuclear and torture centers. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."
Chile is home to the world's largest Palestinian diaspora, and Iran frequently uses the Palestinian cause as a Trojan horse to infiltrate Latin America. Boric initially refused to accept Israel's Ambassador Gil Artzyeli's credentials in September. "Chile's decision was a reaction to the killing of a Palestinian teenager during a military operation in the West Bank," the government of Chile explained in a statement. In addition, Boric has vowed to support for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) legislation directed against Israeli companies in the West Bank.
"Iran's approach in Latin America is to form anti-American alliances with socialist-inspired, often authoritarian governments, such as Venezuela. In Europe, conversely, Iranian networks associate with authoritarian, but far-right networks. As the Iranian slogan said, 'neither for the East nor for the West, Islam is the third way, by following this strategy, Iran gains strength everywhere." Ottolenghi said.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's recent victory in Brazil could open another door to Iran. When Lula previously served as president in 2010, he worked with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to try to resume a nuclear fuel swap deal with Tehran.
Lula's return to power means that almost all of Latin America has become an Iran-friendly region. This development could make the region a perfect spot for a growing Iranian menace to the United States, a place for Iran to evade economic sanctions, a lawless haven where Hizballah can operate freely, and a launching pad for future attacks.
Maria Zuppello is an Italian investigative reporter based in Brazil and an expert on the crime-terror nexus. She is the author of the book Tropical Jihad.
Copyright © 2022. Investigative Project on Terrorism. All rights reserved.