The FBI is ignoring its own guidelines on terrorism in the July 4 El Al shootings, possibly undermining America’s war against Islamic extremists, several experts told The Jewish Week.
The counterterrorism experts, both American and Israeli, say they are baffled by the FBI’s continuing refusal to label as terrorism the Independence Day attack at the El Al counter at Los Angeles International Airport by an Egyptian gunmen that killed a female El Al ticket agent, an Israeli diamond broker, and wounded three others.
Critics charge it is clear the incident is a terrorist act and fits the agency’s own definitions contained in its code of regulations.
But despite Israeli officials quickly calling the incident a terror attack (though they admitted to having no specific evidence) the FBI and the White House this week were still avoiding it.
"It may be a random act of violence," FBI lead investigator Richard Garcia said last week. "We are not ruling out hate crimes. We are not ruling out terror. We are looking into whether the person was despondent."
And following the airport attack by Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, a 41-year-old Egyptian Muslim limousine service owner in Irvine, Calif., White House spokesman Ari Fleischer insisted there "was no indication at this time that this is terrorists."
But Yehudit Barsky, director of the division on Middle East and International Terrorism for the American Jewish Committee, told The Jewish Week: "It’s staring you in the face, that any regular person can see, that this should be considered a suspected incident of terrorism as defined by common sense as well as defined by [the FBI’s] own guidelines."
Hadayet, an immigrant who according to news reports hated Israel, was armed with a 9-mm handgun, a .45-caliber handgun, extra ammunition, and a six-inch knife when he approached the El Al station at LAX and opened fire. Killed in the attack were Victoria Hen, a 25-year-old ticket agent who was to become engaged the next day, and Yakov Aminov, an Israeli diamond importer and father of eight who was reportedly dropping off a friend at the airport. Hadayet was shot dead by El Al security guards.
According to the Code of Federal Regulations of the U.S. Justice Department, terrorism is defined as "… the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."
There are two categories the FBI can use, according to the code:
# "A terrorist incident is a violent act dangerous to human life, in violation of the criminal laws of the United States, or of any state, to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof";
#"A suspected terrorist incident is a potential act of terrorism to which responsibility cannot be attributed at the time to a known or suspected terrorist group or individual."
"I am baffled by the investigative process because, according to my criteria, this qualifies as an act of terrorism," Paul Goldenberg, a former terrorism and hate crimes expert with the New Jersey Attorney General’s office, told The Jewish Week.
Like others critics, Goldenberg says he disagrees with the FBI’s apparent decision to wait and see whether Hadayet was part of a terrorist organization before calling his actions terrorism.
"I don’t agree with that philosophically," Goldenberg stated. "Terror is a mindset, it’s like a hate crime. Do you need two or more people to classify a hate crime?"
Devorah Halberstam (who fought the FBI for seven years before it reclassified the 1994 shooting death of her son Ari on the Brooklyn Bridge by a Lebanese immigrant as an act of terrorism and not a random act or road rage) is outraged that the agency has failed to learn from past mistakes. She warned such failure endangers America’s ability to fight against terrorism.
"It’s deja vu for me," said Halberstam, a member of the New York State Commission on Terrorism. "Is it the arrogance of a law enforcement agency or is it stupidity, even after Sept. 11?"
Laura Bosley, an FBI spokeswoman in Los Angeles, told The Jewish Week Tuesday it was still premature to classify the EL Al incident in any way.
"We haven’t ruled anything out, that’s pretty much been our position since Friday," she said. "We don’t want to clearly classify this as any type of act until all the facts are gathered. At that time we’ll be able to confirm what type of act this was, whether it be a hate crime, an isolated incident of rage, or terrorist act."
Bosley said whether or nor Hadayet was affiliated with a terrorist organization "would support" classifying it as terrorism.
But critics said it should be irrelevant.
"In my view, this is a wrong observation," said Boaz Ganor, director of the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center.
"What makes a terror attack as such is the deliberate use of violence against civilians which is politically oriented, regardless how many people are involved. In Israel we had a lot of terror attacks that were ‘personal initiative attacks.’ This definitely does not exclude them from being defined as a terror attack.
"On the face of things, it was no coincidence that he picked out the El Al counter and opened fire indiscriminately at the passengers and staff there," Ganor said. "This indicates that the attack was politically motivated and that puts it into the category of a terrorist act, despite what appears to be American effort to calm things down by defining it as a hate crime."
Ganor also stressed that the failure by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies for years to detect or understand acts of terrorism has resulted in American deaths.
He pointed out that it took law enforcement authorities more than two years to figure out the clear connection between Said Noseir, the Egyptian gunmen man jailed in the killing of Rabbi Meir Kahane in a New York hotel, and the terrorist cell responsible for the 1993 attempt to blow up the World Trade Center.
Ganor contends that if the Kahane killing had been treated as terrorist attack from the beginning and not the act of a lone gunman, law enforcement agencies would have discovered evidence to prevent the first WTC bombing, where six people died and hundreds were wounded.
"Only after the arrest of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the ringleader of the cell responsible for the 1993 attack, and other members, was it decided to conduct another search at the home of Nosier," he said. "This is why the definition of a crime is, in my opinion, an extremely crucial issue and not just a theoretical linguistic debate."
Agency critics said the FBI is failing to classify the Hadayet’s actions as terrorism in part to avoid public panic. Bosley denied the allegation.
But David Harris, executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee said, "This hemming and hawing about what to call what is clearly an act of terrorism is troubling; so is this continuing agonizing over the killer’s motives, which we see in major newspapers."
Asked what he thought is behind the FBI’s stance, Harris said it related to America’s alliance with Egypt.
"Every time Egypt is involved [in terrorism], there is a reluctance in Washington to call a spade a spade," he said.
Harris also believes it’s an attempt by U.S. officials to avoid panicking the public.
"There may also be a desire to avoid sowing seeds of panic in America, just as travel is starting to pick up again. So referring to this as an isolated incident may be comforting in the short term, but it’s illusory."
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles said, that "when you attack an airport, that’s like attacking the Justice Department. It’s an act of terror committed against a federal institution. Now that America has declared war on terrorism, have we declared war on group terrorism and not individual terrorism, or is the war against all terrorism?"
Several Jewish leaders refrained from criticizing the FBI, saying they would wait until the investigation is complete.
"I’m OK with the idea of waiting until the investigation is completed and let’s see what it yields," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "I know people are upset, but there’s nothing to be gained to define it instantly."
Israeli Minister-Without-Portfolio Dan Naveh told The Jewish Week that while he believed the L.A. attack was terrorism, he was not worried about a delay in classifying it because "basically we [U.S. and Israel] see things eye to eye."
EL Al spokeswoman Sheryl Stein said the airline had no comment about the terrorism issue. "The FBI and the police are doing their best to conduct a thorough investigation. It’s not fair to make any judgments until the investigation is complete."
Meanwhile, media reports this week said that authorities are investigating whether Hadayet met in the U.S. with Osama bin Laden’s deputy.
The London-based Al-Hayat said that investigators were checking whether Hadayet had met with Ayman Al-Zawahiri in 1995 and again in 1998, while the latter was head of the Al-Jihad organization in Egypt.
It was also revealed that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service had started deportation proceedings in 1996 against Hadayet but he gained residency in 1997 when his wife received a valid visa. It wasn’t clear why the INS rejected Hadayet’s first petition.
Hadayet’s wife told the Associated Press Monday that that her husband is innocent, and that he gave no hint of violence in a phone call hours before the shooting.
An ex-employee of Hadayet told The New York Times that his boss "had hate for Israel, for sure."
"He told me that the Israelis tried to destroy the Egyptian nation and the Egyptian population by sending prostitutes with AIDS to Egypt," said Syrian-born Abdul Zahab."
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that al Qaeda announced it would soon strike U.S. and Jewish targets in America and around the world.
"Our suicide militants are ready and impatient to carry out attacks against U.S. and Jewish targets," spokesman Sulaiman bu Ghaith told the Algerian Arabic daily El Youm.
- Devorah Halberstam
- Yehudit Barsky
- Boaz Ganor
- Eric J. Greenberg
- David Harris
- Paul Goldenberg
- Los Angeles International Airport
- Hesham Mohamed Hadayet
- Richard Garcia
- Victoria Hen
- Ari Fleischer
- Yakov Aminov
- U.S. Justice Department
- and wounded three others
- ticket agent
- Laura Bosley
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
- attorney general
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