Two Brooklyn congressmen have joined a grassroots campaign to have the FBI officially designate the July 4 shootings at Los Angeles International Airport by an Egyptian gunman as a suspected terrorist attack.
"The FBI’s failure to publicly acknowledge this fact is dangerous because it lessens the vigilance against similar acts … in the near future," said Rep. Major Owens in a July 21 press statement.
Rep. Anthony Weiner, in a letter to FBI director Robert Mueller, urged Mueller to investigate the act as "a possible terrorist attack."
Support from the two Democratic lawmakers (both of whom represent large Jewish neighborhoods) comes as a group of rabbis led by Rabbi Avi Weiss announced a public campaign to get Congress to schedule hearings on the FBI’s handling of the Independence Day incident at the El Al ticket counter. Two people were fatally shot by Egyptian limousine driver Hesham Mohamed Hadayet.
"This is a grassroots campaign asking people to write to their congressmen asking for them to hold hearings," said Rabbi Weiss, head of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha.
An FBI spokeswoman maintains that the bureau has not ruled out labeling the shootings as terrorism, but is also investigating the incident as a possible hate crime or case of rage. She said no designation would be made until the probe is completed, and could not say when that would be.
But Rabbi Weiss, of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, believes the FBI is refraining from calling Hadayet’s attack a terrorist incident for political purposes, specifically not to upset the American Muslim community.
Owens said there was no question that Hadayet "committed an act of terrorism."
"It might have been a solo suicide mission," Owens said. "Nonetheless, all of the ingredients of terrorism were present. The gunman chose the Israeli airline ticket counter and he killed at random. When this is coupled with his personal background, it should not be difficult to perceive this as an act of terrorism similar to the acts committed by suicide bombers in Israel."
Killed in the attack were Victoria Hen, 25, a ticket agent who was to become engaged the next day, and Jacob Aminov, a diamond importer and father of eight. Hadayet was shot dead by El Al security guards.
Weiner said he hoped the FBI was not repeating the mistakes that were made "when the investigation of the murder of Ari Halberstam was treated incorrectly for years."
He was referring to the1994 fatal shooting on the Brooklyn Bridge of the teenage Lubavitch student by a Lebanese cab driver. The FBI and the New York Police Department originally classified the case as "road rage," but years of pressure by Halberstam’s mother, Devorah, caused the FBI to reclassify it as an act of terrorism.
"The families of the victims of the July 4, 2002 attack should not have to endure the same agonizing crusade that Mrs. Halberstam undertook," Weiner said. "I believe that the investigators of the [airport] shooting acted prematurely in stating that this attack was not an act of terrorism."
Weiner told Mueller, "I respectfully request that you consult with those directing the investigation…and urge them to consider the results of the re-investigation of the Ari Halberstam case."
Rabbi Weiss last week asked for a meeting with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to discuss the case.
Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock said Monday that she had not heard about the meeting request and would check into it. "The scheduling office would be the place that would handle the request," she said.
Comstock did not provide an answer by press time.
Rabbi Weiss said he is prepared to sue the FBI to force the bureau to follow its own guidelines on defining terrorism.
The Jewish Week reported that in the airport shootings, the FBI appears to have ignored its own code for defining terrorist incidents.
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."
Yehudit Barsky, a counterterrorism expert for the American Jewish Committee, said the FBI "hasn’t learned its lessons from the past, that you could still have a terrorism incident carried out by an individual who is inspired by the ideology of a terrorist group. That is the mentality that needs to be changed."
Barsky said it could be a couple of months or even years before the FBI labels the incident.
"To be fair, I’m not sure there is a quick resolution," she said. "They may decide they want to canvass everyone he’s ever had contact with, and that takes time. You have his family, who are not accessible in Egypt. There is not a typical timetable for an investigation like this."
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- Hesham Mohamed Hadayet
- Robert Mueller
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