U.S. Charges Hezbollah Operative in Deadly 1994 Bombing of Jewish Center

Nearly 30 years after a bombing at a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires killed 85 people, federal prosecutors in Manhattan accused a man in Lebanon of helping plan the attack and leading decades of terrorism for Hezbollah.

The man, Samuel Salman El Reda, 58, relayed information to help operatives who bombed the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina in July 1994, prosecutors said in an indictment unsealed Wednesday. Mr. El Reda remains at large, according to prosecutors.

Argentina has Latin America’s largest Jewish population — about 250,000 people, according to a government estimate — and the attack devastated the city’s community, leveling the building and injuring hundreds of people in addition to those killed.

Prosecutors in New York said that since 1993, Mr. El Reda has been a leader within Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad Organization, its arm responsible for the “planning and coordination of intelligence, counterintelligence and terrorist activities.” Mr. El Reda has masterminded attacks in South America, Asia and Lebanon, they said.

“For decades, Samuel Salman El Reda has led terrorist operations on behalf of the Islamic Jihad Organization of Hezbollah,” Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said. “The career prosecutors of this office have not forgotten the pain and suffering.”

Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group founded in the early 1980s, has been designated by the United States as a terrorist organization since 1997. Israel sees Hezbollah as one of its biggest regional foes and as a proxy for Iran. In 2006, Israel and the group fought to a standstill in a monthlong war. Since then, there have been bursts of fighting along Israel’s northern border, including in 2021 when Hezbollah claimed responsibility for a volley of rockets fired over the frontier.

After Hamas launched its deadly incursion from the Gaza Strip into Israel on Oct. 7, Israeli officials warned that any increase in attacks by Hezbollah could prompt a powerful response, prompting fears of a wider conflict.

In previous years, the group reached across oceans to attack those it considered enemies.

Prosecutors in Argentina have said that information Mr. El Reda provided was indispensable in carrying out the Buenos Aires bombing and that he connected the attackers with Hezbollah leaders in the porous border region of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.

No one has been held legally responsible for the attack, and Argentina’s investigation has been mired in controversy: In 2015, a special prosecutor was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head shortly after accusing then-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and other top officials of conspiring with Iran to stop the effort.

Mr. El Reda, a dual Colombian-Lebanese citizen, has had an international warrant out for his arrest since 2009. A lawyer for Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, Miguel Bronfman, expressed optimism on Wednesday that the U.S. indictment would bring new urgency.

“It’s not the same thing for Argentina to request it than the U.S. to request it,” said Mr. Bronfman, who has represented the group for 25 years. “Let’s hope it can work for that, to obtain his capture.”

Mr. Bronfman added that the charges announced on Wednesday were significant because “there is a court in the United States that is in a way corroborating what Argentina has been saying for years” about Hezbollah’s involvement in the bombing.

Federal law allows prosecutors to bring charges for conduct supporting designated terrorist organizations outside the United States, as long as the person charged is later brought to the country. Since June 2017, several Islamic Jihad operatives have been convicted in the Southern District of New York, prosecutors said.

Argentine prosecutors said Mr. El Reda lived in both Buenos Aires and the Brazilian border city of Foz do Iguaçu. They are still investigating who could have helped Mr. El Reda carry out the 1994 attack and are working with the authorities in Brazil, Paraguay and Panama to obtain evidence, according to their latest report.

In all, there are international arrest warrants out for nine people suspected of being involved in the attack, according to Mr. Bronfman.

A day after the Buenos Aires attack, a bomb exploded on a domestic flight in Panama, killing all 21 people aboard. Prosecutors in Argentina said there was evidence that Mr. El Reda was also connected to that bombing.

While the investigation into the Buenos Aires bombing stalled, Mr. El Reda’s terrorist activities continued, prosecutors in Manhattan said. Beginning in 2007, Mr. El Reda helped “recruit, train and deploy” operatives from Lebanon to gather intelligence and plan attacks, according to the indictment.

In 2009, prosecutors said, Mr. El Reda ordered operatives to travel to Thailand to destroy a cache of ammonium nitrate and other explosive materials that he believed were under law enforcement surveillance. In 2011, he sent operatives to Panama to surveil the Panama Canal and the embassies of the United States and Israel, according to prosecutors.

In 2014, a man was arrested in Peru and authorities found traces of explosive chemicals on his hands and in his apartment, as well as photographs of Peruvian landmarks and buildings. He named Mr. El Reda as his handler, prosecutors said.

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