COLUMN ONE : Hezbollah: The Latin Connection : Bombings in Argentina and Panama prompt concern over the radical group's growing presence in the region. Experts say lax security and porous borders create a prime base for terrorists.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The convention hall near the National Congress was festooned with flags bearing Islamic symbols and posters of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock shrine. About 100 Argentine right-wing activists and Shiite Muslims filled the audience. In the front row sat diplomats from the Iranian Embassy.

The embassy's cultural affairs officer, Imam Mohsen Rabbani, rose. "Israel," he intoned in accented Spanish, "must disappear from the face of the Earth." He and a dozen speakers who followed quoted Iran's late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and called for unity in the fight against Zionism and the satanism of the West.

Such rhetoric and trappings would not be unusual in the Middle East. But this was the other side of the world: downtown Buenos Aires, three years ago.

Rabbani's activities in Argentina are attracting new attention in the wake of the terrorist bombing last month that killed nearly 100 people at a Jewish community center. That suicide bombing, an airliner bombing in Panama the next day, a 1992 attack that destroyed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and other incidents in recent years point to what U.S. officials and security experts believe is a little-noticed presence of radical Islamic groups in Latin America.

The Rabbani meeting, described for The Times by people who were present, has not been tied to any act of violence. And both Rabbani and the leaders of Argentina's small Shiite community have condemned the bombings. But officials here are now questioning whether Iranian diplomats such as Rabbani have had a role in indoctrinating or aiding terrorists, who can use Latin America's lax security to their advantage.

The armed branch of Hezbollah, the fundamentalist Party of God based in Lebanon, and other violent groups are thought to have been planting agents and recruiting sympathizers in Latin America since the mid-1980s, using the general flow of mainstream Arab and Muslim immigrants as cover, terrorism experts say.

Of the millions worldwide who hold the Muslim faith, only a small percentage are fundamentalists, and an even smaller number are extremists who advocate violence.

Although proof is still being accumulated, American and Israeli officials have blamed the two Argentina bombings on Hezbollah, which has been exchanging blows with Israel in Lebanon for more than a decade. A legal political party that has militant wings, Hezbollah is also suspected in two bombings in London last month. Its political leaders deny involvement.

Many parts of Latin America make an ideal landscape for terrorists: porous borders; inept law enforcement combined with weak investigative skills; large Jewish, Arab and other communities drawn from conflict-ridden parts of the world; established rings of smugglers, drug traffickers and arms merchants, and entrenched traditions of corruption. In Argentina, a long string of anti-Semitic attacks has gone virtually unpunished for nearly two decades.

"Hezbollah is mainly engaged in terrorism in Europe and the Middle East, but it has migrated to Latin America," said Robert Kupperman, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "There are a lot of Israelis (in Latin America)--a lot of targets--and it's a springboard to the United States. . . . The purpose behind the (latest) bombings is that Hezbollah wants to show it has a long arm and can reach anywhere."

Argentina has the largest Jewish community in Latin America, at about 250,000; the population of Arab descendants is more than triple that number.

The scope of Hezbollah's ability to attack in Latin America is not known. The actual membership may be quite small, and little hard evidence of the clandestine group's activities is available. But investigators and intelligence specialists cite the following factors in addition to the two Argentina blasts:

* The day after Buenos Aires' seven-story Jewish community center was reduced to rubble on July 18, a suicide bomber said to be Lebanese and unable to speak Spanish or English boarded a commuter flight in Colon, Panama, near the Atlantic end of the Panama Canal. When he detonated the bomb, all 21 people aboard were killed, including 12 Jewish and Israeli businessmen, and three U.S. citizens.

* In a report earlier this year, Argentine intelligence identified the jungle region at the border with Paraguay and Brazil as a potential base of operation for Middle Eastern terrorists. The area has an estimated 30,000 Lebanese Shiites, many there illegally. The car and explosives used in the 1992 embassy attack were reportedly traced to the region.

"They (Hezbollah radicals) have the capability to do something in Brazil, probably Caracas (Venezuela), and I'd say most of the major urban areas of Latin America," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former senior CIA officer who is an international security consultant in Washington.

* A senior leader of the Abu Nidal organization, a renegade group of radical Palestinians, was arrested in Lima, Peru, in 1988, thwarting a reported plan to blow up the Israeli Embassy and a synagogue there. In 1992, seven alleged members of Islamic Jihad--another radical fundamentalist group in the Mideast--were arrested in Quito, Ecuador, by Interpol agents who claimed the men planned attacks on the Israeli ambassador in Bogota, Colombia.

* Venezuela last month expelled four Iranian diplomats and declared the Iranian ambassador persona non grata. All were accused of plotting to kidnap an Iranian defector, who later provided evidence implicating other Iranian officials in the Argentina bombings.

Despite these indications, some Argentine observers are skeptical that a significant Middle Eastern terrorist network exists in their country. Rather than an entrenched Hezbollah organization, they see a more ad-hoc union formed for specific operations.

"I think there could easily be an alliance (of Middle Eastern terrorists) with groups here that are not necessarily Islamic, such as the neo-Nazis, who are not of great importance but who are nevertheless dangerous," said Norberto Mendez, a social scientist who teaches courses on fundamentalism at the University of Buenos Aires.

"The fundamentalist Shiites here probably have nothing to do with (the July 18 bombing). They would be such obvious suspects. . . . That they have ties with Iran, there is no doubt. But that does not link them with terrorism."

Abdul Karim Paz, an Argentine convert to Islam who runs the Al-Tahuid mosque in Buenos Aires, said Wednesday that while he supports Hezbollah's struggle in Lebanon, he would end that support if it were proved that the group carried out the Buenos Aires bombings. People outside the Mideast should not be brought into Hezbollah's conflict with Israel, he said.

And Argentina's ambassador to the United States, Raul Granillo Ocampo, told a U.S. congressional hearing this week that Argentina's Shiite community is too small to have a terrorist infrastructure.

Still, in Buenos Aires the investigation is focusing on two fronts: the evident existence of a local support network for the terrorists--perhaps including unwitting participants--and the Iranian Embassy's possible role in the planning or execution of the bombings.

Investigators believe they have pieced together the steps leading to the purchase and rigging of the car bomb used July 18, and judicial officials have indicated that they want to question up to five Iranian diplomats, some of whom have left the country.

Separately, U.S. forensic specialists dispatched here are trying to determine the bomber's physical characteristics. They have little evidence: His remains are among body parts collected in 10 bags.

So far, five Argentines have been detained for questioning, including men who bought and refurbished a Renault van that was later used as the car bomb. But there is no indication at this point that the men had knowledge of the bombing. In fact, Argentine officials concede their investigation is full of holes.

"As far as the police are concerned, the investigation is very advanced," Interior Minister Carlos Ruckauf told the Argentine newspaper Clarin. "But being able to prove it judicially, where the suspect has rights and can refuse to testify, is another matter. Argentina cannot act like Israel, which determines who is politically guilty and then bombs them."

Argentine officials contend that their investigation is hampered by their inexperience with international terrorism--and because a ruthless national security apparatus was dismantled after democracy replaced military dictatorship a decade ago.

The lack of expertise was obvious in the investigation of the 1992 Israeli Embassy bombing. No arrests were made except for four Pakistanis who were quickly released for lack of evidence.

President Carlos Saul Menem, who is of Syrian descent but has sided with Israel on several foreign policy matters, has gone to great lengths to assure Jewish leaders--and the world--that this time his government has undertaken a thorough investigation.

But critics, including several Jewish leaders, question the political will of some government officials, especially in law enforcement, where some officers are said to have fascist sympathies.

An army intelligence agent was arrested after an arsenal and Nazi literature were found in his house. Alejandro Sucksdorf was not discreet: Signs on the fence around his house bore swastikas.

"I do not have the least doubt that the (July 18) bomb was the child of the impunity surrounding earlier acts of terrorism," said Sergio D. Widder, the representative in Argentina of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Jewish groups have documented 30 anti-Semitic incidents in Argentina in the last 20 years.

In fact, initial suspicion after the July 18 bombing fell on neo-Nazi groups, in part because the bomb exploded at the hour of a regularly scheduled meeting of a committee assigned to study newly released government files on Nazis in South America. The meeting had been canceled unexpectedly.

But because of the skill and evident advance planning involved in the attack, the hateful but not well-organized neo-Nazi groups were dismissed as likely suspects.

U.S. officials admit they did not note the arrival of Islamic fundamentalists in Latin America until the 1992 bombing. But they now say they believe Hezbollah clerics began working in Lebanese communities in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay in the mid- and late 1980s, at the height of the Lebanese civil war, and that Hezbollah cells began to form.

"The explosion at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 came as a bolt from the blue," said a U.S. official who specializes in terrorism. "I don't think we ever had any thought or any inkling that Hezbollah had an operational presence in Latin America.

"After we began looking, a lot of concern centered on the tri-border area. . . . It turns out that Hezbollah has been working there for several years, beginning with an effort to do fund raising for their operations in Lebanon."

Brazilian police and the Argentine National Intelligence Service became interested in the tri-border cities of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay and Foz do Iguacu in Brazil, after learning of contacts between alleged Hezbollah members and arms traffickers in the area, Clarin said, citing the Argentine intelligence report.

Long known as a center for contraband and prostitution, the region is a bustling place of intrigue. Arabic is heard as much as, or perhaps more than, Spanish in Ciudad del Este, and shopping there can just as easily net a visitor a fake passport or an automatic rifle as a watch.

The borders are also heavily forested, law-enforcement vigilance is virtually nonexistent, and tens of thousands of foreign tourists arrive every year to visit the nearby Iguacu Falls.

To prove how easily the borders can be crossed, two reporters from an Argentine magazine traveled to the area less than 48 hours after the community-center bombing, as President Menem was claiming borders had been closed to prevent the escape of possible suspects.

"Here we check no one," a Paraguayan immigration police officer told the magazine Gente. "Anyone can come through here, from anywhere in the world and work in whatever occurs to him."

Diplomats also say Argentina's passport is easily reproduced.

In their investigation, Argentine authorities are relying heavily on the testimony of the Iranian defector in Venezuela who implicated up to five members of Iran's diplomatic mission in Buenos Aires. Monoucher Motamer is said to have sought asylum after the Iranians allegedly tried to kidnap him. The incident prompted the Venezuelan government to expel the diplomats and ban the ambassador. Unconfirmed Argentine news reports have since suggested that Motamer was a CIA agent.

Menem has said Argentina will break diplomatic relations with Iran if its involvement is proven.

Many in Argentina's Arab and Muslim communities fear they are being made a scapegoat. Arabs from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt--most of them Christian--began migrating to Argentina in the middle of the 19th Century in search of business opportunities and, much later, to escape war.

"There are two types of victims here--the dead and wounded, and now there are the victims of ideological repression, (suffering) a type of witch hunt," said Gabriel Ali, a representative of a local Muslim organization.

If terrorism in Argentina caught the world by surprise, Panama as a scenario was even less expected, and some diplomats and officials think there may not be a Middle East connection in the bombing. Panama does not share Argentina's history of overt anti-Semitism. But it has long been a haven for fugitives of all sorts, and it is a well-known center for money laundering and other shady dealings.

The suicide bomber was said to have had a clumsily forged U.S. passport. He apparently had not been in Panama very long.

The case is still under investigation, but officials in Washington said the attack--atypical of Hezbollah in style and method--reflected advance intelligence and preparation: The bomber knew what flight would be carrying Israeli and Jewish businessmen.

Such planning reflects deep roots in the area, the officials said.

Times staff writers Doyle McManus and Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.

Terrorist Group Profiles

Among the terrorist organizations believed active in Latin America:

* Hezbollah: Iranian-backed radical Shiite Islamic group. Most active in Mideast. Spiritual adviser: Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.

* Abu Nidal: Known as Fatah Revolutionary Council in the Mideast, and headed there by terrorist Abu Nidal. Since 1970, linked to terrorist attacks in 20 countries. Also involved in money smuggling.

* Islamic Jihad: Terrorist group believed to be made up of Iranian loyalists. Claimed responsibility for attacks on U.S. Embassy and Marines in Lebanon in 1983. Believed to be part of Hezbollah.

The Latin Connection

Many parts of Latin America make an ideal landscape for terrorists. U.S. officials admit that they did not notice the arrival of Islamic fundamentalists in Latin America until 1992. Countries where terrorists are believed to be active are shown in white.

PANAMA

BRAZIL

PARAGUAY

ARGENTINA

Tri-border region (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay) is a center for prostitution and smuggling. It is also a reputed support base for Hezbollah.

Ingredients for Terrorism

* Porous borders

* Lax law enforcement

* Large immigrant communities from conflict-ridden parts of the world

* Established rings of smugglers and arms merchants

* Traditions of corruption

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