This latest piece just published in Townhall represents a joint, 10-month reporting effort between me and the Middle East Forum – from both Panama and Israel – about whether Panama ever followed through on its 2018 public promise to launch a formal investigation of the largely forgotten 1994 suicide bombing that killed all aboard Alas Chiricanas Flight 901. Panama did not follow through, possibly succumbing to pressure from Iran. But the piece argues that Panama must be forced to open the investigation, at least to enhance current American national security. The published reporting and analysis of the situation is linked here.
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I would note that no other media outlet in the world has even attempted this important story, not even local Panamanian press. Key takeaways:
It is all but official: a promised Argentina-style investigation was never launched into Hezbollah and Iranian involvement in the mid-air bombing of a 1994 flight that killed 12 Panamanian Jewish business leaders as well as 10 other Panamanians, despite public promises to do so by former President Juan Varela. What happened and why? Months of inquest by me and the Uruguayan-Israeli journalist Jana Beris found an apparent determination in official Panamanian or Israeli circles not to speak of the promise, either on or off the record, with or without attribution, from September 2018 through August 2019.
Panama’s new incoming President Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo, who just took office on July 1, has not yet commented on whether it may open the investigation but should, as Argentina did for its twin 1992 and 1994 Iran-Hezbollah terror attacks, in the interest of its own current security as well as the security of the United States and in the interests of justice.
Although we cannot know why Panama’s promised investigation has not materialized, we do know that Iran and Arab diaspora communities put enormous economic and diplomatic pressure on Argentina leadership, for many years, to kill and compromise its promised investigations of the 1992 and 1994 bombings in Buenos Aires. In recent years, two former presidents were indicted on corruption charges and treason related to their concerted investigative interference on behalf of Iran and its allies. A former special prosecutor for Argentina was murdered for his work. A fair question, since no one is talking: Was similar pressure brought to bear on the Panamanians?
A new Panama investigation of Iran-Hezbollah much closer to the U.S. back yard, in Central America, can be useful to meet current challenges with Iran during a time of saber-rattling and tension with the United States. Argentina’s investigation is still regarded as a trail-blazing blueprint for understanding Iran-Hezbollah operations in South America and is used to this day for counterterrorism operations. Just last month, those investigations were cited as justification for Argentina to formally designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization, allowing Argentina to lawfully counter Hezbollah’s South American operations alongside the United States now. The Argentine investigations also prompted counterterrorism penal system reforms, new programs to combat terrorism financing, and a modernization of security and intelligence capabilities.
Did Iran and its allies abroad and in the region pressure and corrupt Panama into going another direction, as the record shows happened at great length and for years in Argentina? This question is explored at length.
The shuttering of a Panama investigation means the loss of a rare opportunity to expand knowledge about Iran and Hezbollah even closer to America’s southern approaches, where it may well involve different groups of supporters, means and methods, and criminal activity preferences. In contrast to Argentina, Panama did not even pass a counterterrorism law proposed in 2015. Meanwhile, Hezbollah collected target information throughout Panama in 2011 and 2012 at least, to include ships through the canal.
At a time when U.S.-demanded global economic sanctions against Iran have led to seized oil tankers and shot down drones, the opportunity costs of shuttering the Flight 901 investigation should not be allowed to pass in silence, without notice or discussion.
Todd Bensman is a Texas-based senior national security fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies. For nearly a decade, Bensman led counterterrorism-related intelligence efforts for the Texas Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division. Learn more at www.toddbensman.com, follow him on Twitter @BensmanTodd, Senior National Security Fellow, Center for Immigration Studies, Writing Fellow, Middle East Forum, Author, The Federalist, Political Columnist, Townhall