SECURITY: Suicide Terrorism: Lessons Learned from Argentina’s 1994 AMIA & Colombia’s 1989 Avianca Flight 203 bombings

These Latin American incidents reveal the core of suicide bombing as a timeless insurgent methodology. Photo (c) La Nación 2007These Latin American incidents reveal the core of suicide bombing as a timeless insurgent methodology. Photo (c) La Nación 2007

The 1994 bombing on the AMIA building in Argentina and the 1989 bombing of Avianca Flight 203 in Colombia embody two demonstrative suicide bombing case studies. The strategy of suicide bombing is a foundational violent method adopted by modern insurgent groups.

Suicide bombing as we know it today is relatively new, having been pioneered by Hezbollah in the 1980s. Ever since, Hezbollah and other insurgent groups have identified the practice as a generally economic method to engender massive impact.

University of Chicago’s Robert Pape observes that such impacts can empower the reputation and morale of the perpetrating entities. Therefore, in order to further comprehend said methodology, it becomes valuable to compare and contrast different case studies from different incidents.

1994 AMIA bombing

Photo (c) Radio Sefarad 2018

Hezbollah has maintained a noted presence among the southern cone South American underworld for decades. Photo (c) Radio Sefarad 2018

First, Hezbollah with suspected Iranian government aid are believed to have conducted the deadliest single mass murder event in Argentine history when it targeted the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building via suicide bombing on July 18, 1994. The ample Buenos Aires-based Jewish community and high density commercial district surrounding the edifice was targeted by the Islamic fundamentalist insurgent group. The average fatality rate accounted for 86 killed – including the 21-year-old bomber, Ibrahim Hussein Berro – with more than two hundred wounded. The method of operation consisted of driving a sedan loaded with approximately six hundred pounds of a fuel and fertilizer concoction. The car rammed into the ground floor which led to the collapse of all upper floors. Yet the AMIA bombing is by no means the only Hezbollah conducted suicide bombing incident in 1990s Latin America.

Additional pertinently relative information includes the fact that the Hezbollah has maintained a noted presence among the southern cone South American underworld for decades. The insurgent group utilizes areas such as the regional capitols, weakly supervised borders, and most famously the Tri-Border region connecting Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay as hubs for trafficking illicit substances and conducting terroristic motives as seen fit. It is also worthy of note that the 1994 AMIA bombing was not Hezbollah’s first suspected attack on Argentine soil. Indeed, the AMIA case succeeded the Hezbollah’s successful suicide bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires two years prior. The reasons for both incidents have been disputed since and have involved many high profile entities. Argentine, Israeli and US intelligence agencies have been involved in the following investigations. There is a common conclusion that solid conclusions pertaining to the motives and precise actors involved in the AMIA bombing transcends an ethnic hate crime and actually involves covering for ulterior motives.

Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman collected substantial documents featuring proof of Iranian government backing of the bombing. Nisman specifically accused the then incumbent President Nestor Kirchner administration of destroying this evidence in light of a major nuclear technology deal underway amid Kirchner and Iranian counterparts – military and political. Nisman continued speaking against the Kirchner administrations and other key figures, including fellow Jewish Argentine, ex-Argentine Ambassador to the US and Foreign Minister, Hector Timerman, of covering the Iranian connection to the AMIA bombing in the name of business interests. Nisman was assassinated under mysterious circumstances in 2015 and Timerman has fled to the US for “health reasons” upon beginning to be tried by the federal court system for potential involvement in the AMIA bombing cover up. Overall, the 1994 AMIA suicide bombing demonstrates the continual effect that such insurgent methods can generate. However, it is by no means the only suicide bombing featuring time transcending effect and ambiguous elements.

1989 Avianca Flight 203 bombing

Photo (c) Wall Street Journal 2018

Pablo Escobar publically claimed to have masterminded the bombing and arrested former cartel members have re-substantiated this fact through recent accounts. Photo (c) Wall Street Journal 2018

Second, the Medellin drug Cartel conducted a bombing of civilian flight 203 of Aerolineas Avianca on the alleged impetus of targeting pro-drug lord extradition presidential candidate, Cesar Gaviria. However, Gaviria had “coincidentally” and clandestinely opted to cancel his flight on the same day. He went onto win the presidency. It is also worthy of note that the Medellin Cartel had assassinated the pre-presidential candidate of which Gaviria was originally running with as vice president, Luis Carlos Galan. Yet Pablo Escobar explained that not only was the intention to eliminate pro-extradition Gaviria from the political playing field, but also demonstrate to the national government that the cartel was not beyond harming citizens in order to substantiate its power potential. Thus, the flight and suicide bombing act continued, leaving no survivors out of the original 113.

Methods of operation included Medellin Cartel assassins having recruited an 17-year-old local known as “El Suizo” to board flight 203 with a suitcase. Customs officials on the cartel payroll permitted “El Suizo’s” luggage loaded with C-4 through the security check point. “El Suizo” was seated close to the aircraft’s fuel tank and was instructed to open the suitcase once airborne. The nick name is a play on the Spanish word for “Swiss” and also the Spanish word for “suicide”. Flight 203 exploded five minutes after takeoff. Similar to Argentina’s AMIA bombing, the Avianca bombing was the largest mass civilian murder in modern Colombian history.

Additional relevant information includes that Pablo Escobar publically claimed to have masterminded the bombing and arrested former cartel members have re-substantiated this fact through recent accounts. Escobar’s cartel was experiencing the end of its apex of power era. The US and Colombia had by then already teamed up to combat the drug cartels in the country and were in the process of capturing and killing high profile members. Escobar explained that not only was the intention to eliminate pro-extradition Gaviria from the political playing field, but also demonstrate to the local government that the cartel was not beyond harming citizens in order to substantiate its power potential. Thanks to bilateral efforts on behalf of the US and Colombia, Escobar and the Medellin Cartel were expired within three years following the Avianca suicide bombing.

Parallels

Photo (c) Primera Edicion Argentina 2017

Parallels are drawn as the Medellin Cartel targeted Colombian civilians and the Hezbollah targeted Argentine civilians in order to engender popular fear for respective groups. Photo (c) Primera Edicion Argentina 2017

Overall, the AMIA and Avianca suicide bombing incidents are prime case studies for comparison and contrasting purposes. First, both affairs involved the inherent willingness and ability to eliminate mass quantities of civilians in order to substantiate extreme beliefs on behalf of respective perpetrating entities – the Hezbollah with suspected Iranian backing in Argentina and the Medellin Cartel in Colombia. Hezbollah conducted the AMIA building bombing, targeting hundreds of Jews out of religious fundamentalism. The Medellin Cartel targeted Gaviria in order to counter a law permitting Colombian criminals with links to illegal activity relating to the US to the US. Parallels are drawn as the Medellin Cartel targeted Colombian civilians and the Hezbollah targeted Argentine civilians in order to engender popular fear for respective groups.

Second, the Avianca fatality rate was larger that AMIA’s and zero survivors. Meanwhile, AMIA effected hundreds of survivors and just under a hundred kills.

Third and finally, both suicide bombings involved modes of transportation. An individual car bomb was utilized to crash into a building full of people for AMIA, while a plane full with people was utilized for Avianca.

Today

Photo (c) Infobae 2016

The events go onto demonstrate how contemporary suicide bombings have indeed not needed to innovate much since their 1980s conception. Photo (c) Infobae 2016

In conclusion, the AMIA and Avianca case studies prove more similar than different.

The events go onto demonstrate how contemporary suicide bombings have indeed not needed to innovate much since their 1980s conception.

Therefore, these two examples involving Hezbollah in Latin America not only contrast and compare, but also reveal the core of suicide bombing as a timeless insurgent methodology.

About the Author

Ailana Navarez
Ailana Navarez is Pulsamerica’s Editor-in-Chief, Owner, Digital Marketing Manager and Contributor; and Deputy Editor of partner-magazine International Policy Digest. She is former Contributor of Uruguay and Venezuela. She has published over 100 international relations-related articles as a political analyst / journalist with a concentration in Latin American leadership analysis, economy, history, international relations, and her research passions, politics and narco-trafficking. As a photographer, she has covered international summits – including of MERCOSUR and the UN. She holds a BA in Government and Psychology at Harvard, pursuing an MA in Homeland Security at Penn State, and is certified in Competitive Counter Intelligence, Technical Surveillance Countermeasures and Countering Terrorism & the Asset Threat Spectrum. She has volunteered for environmental, educational and law enforcement entities - domestically and abroad. She maintains permanent residency status in Panama, the United States and Uruguay. She speaks English, Spanish, Portuguese and Hawaiian Creole.