Islamic Radicals Have Spread Out -- Argentina Bombing Linked To New Base In Latin America

A Muslim group's claim of responsibility for a bombing that killed at least 26 people and injured more than 120 in Argentina shows that Islamic radicals, squeezed ever more tightly in the Middle East, are roaming farther afield and perhaps even setting up a base in the heart of South America, security analysts said.

A previously unknown group, the Islamic Command, claimed yesterday's bombing of a seven-story Jewish center in Buenos Aires; experts strongly suspect the group is linked to Muslim fundamentalists in Iran.

Drug traffickers would have little reason to bomb a Jewish center, security experts said, and neo-Nazi groups don't appear capable of such an attack.

"There is a sizable anti-Semitic community in Argentina," said Carl Kruse of Kroll Associates, a security-risk company, "but they've shown no capability of mounting an attack like what happened."

Hezbollah, a pro-Iranian group based in Lebanon, is believed to be responsible for the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and to be operating out of the region where the Argentine, Paraguayan and Brazilian borders meet, terrorism experts say.

Long a haven for smugglers, the "tri-border" area is home to between 80,000 and 100,000 Lebanese, many of them Shiite Muslims, a State Department security expert said. She said Hezbollah has safe houses in the area and that its members can move easily across borders.

That is one of several operational centers Hezbollah has established around the world - including in West and East Africa and Southeast Asia - to help it strike at Israeli or Jewish targets, experts said.

The 1992 embassy bombing in Buenos Aires alerted analysts to Hezbollah's intention of expanding its reach outside the Middle East and Europe, another U.S. diplomat said.

Hezbollah may have had a number of motives to attack again, including its opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Other analysts pointed to a series of events in May and June.

In late May, Israeli commandos penetrating into Lebanon kidnapped Mustafa Dirani, the Lebanese head of Faithful Resistance, a radical Islamic group. Then on June 1, Israeli planes bombed a Hezbollah camp in Lebanon, leaving 52 fighters dead.

"There were expressions on Hezbollah's part that they will choose the arena for their revenge," said Ariel Merari, a professor at Tel Aviv University and prominent Israeli terrorism expert.

What surprised many was the choice of Argentina as a venue - considering the attack two years ago.

"It was incredibly nervy to go back to where they hit just two years ago," said one U.S. diplomat, adding that Hezbollah was drawing more attention to itself and its base of support among Lebanese Muslims in Foz do Iguacu, the biggest city in the tri-border area.

With operational capacity in the heart of South America, the radical Muslims could target Jewish groups anywhere in Latin America, the State Department expert said.

"It's just a question of where they decide to do their next operation," she said. "Paraguay and Brazil are even softer targets."

"If folks who want to attack Israel can establish the capability to do so in Buenos Aires, why can't they establish it in Santiago or Sao Paulo or Asuncion?" Kruse asked.

How vast Hezbollah's operational capacity in South America may be is not clear, despite investigations following the 1992 blast, which killed 29 people and wounded 242.

Last week, Venezuela ordered four Iranian diplomats to leave the country. The reason was not clear.

"I don't think anyone really has a handle on what's going on in Latin America," the State Department expert said.

The southern tier of South America, where both Jews and Arabs have established large communities, has made little preparation to fight international terrorism.

"The security in Latin America has for a long time been very lackadaisical, very suspect," Kruse said.