LOS ANGELES (Jul. 7)
Was the shooting spree by an Egyptian at Los Angeles International Airport’s El Al terminal a premeditated terrorist attack, or a lone gunman’s hate crime?
That’s the question on everyone’s mind after an Egyptian-born California resident killed an Israeli emigre and El Al employee on July 4. Israeli officials are calling the shooting a terrorist attack, while FBI and Los Angeles police officials are saying the incident appears to be isolated.
The shooting came on a day when the nation was on high alert for potential terrorist strikes, after the FBI issued a general warning of non-specific Al-Qaida threats against U.S. targets over the holiday.
The gunman was identified as Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, 41, an Egyptian-born resident of suburban Irvine. He opened fire at approximately 11:30 a.m. at El Al’s ticket counter, killing bystander Yaakov Aminov, 46, and El Al ticket agent Victoria Hen, 25.
Hadayet then reportedly pulled out a handgun and began spraying the area, firing up to 10 shots before El Al security guards overcame and shot him.
So far, U.S. authorities have been extremely cautious about characterizing the attack as anything but a shooting carried out by an individual, though Israeli officials say the attack resembles previous acts of terrorism against El Al and Jewish targets.
Coming as it did on July 4, and against Israelis and Jews, the attack looks and feels like terrorism, Israeli officials said.
“From the way the attack was conducted, the way the gunman skipped dozens of other foreign airline counters to target El Al, our experience tells us it is terrorism,” Yuval Rotem, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, told JTA.
His view was immediately backed by high Israeli officials, including Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Transportation Minister Efraim Sneh.
American authorities have taken a more cautious view, initially describing the shooting as an “isolated incident.”
At a news conference the day after the attack, FBI special agent Richard Garcia took a slight step toward the Israeli interpretation by acknowledging that Hadayet apparently went to the airport with the intention of killing people.
As to his motives, “We are not ruling out a hate crime,” Garcia said. “We are not ruling out terrorism completely and we are not ruling out” that the attack “may be a random act of violence.”
This portrait was subsequently altered by Abdul Zahab, who had worked for a limousine service operated by Hadayet and told The New York Times that his former boss was virulently anti-Israel.
Hadayet, who had settled in the United States in 1992, asserted that the “Israelis tried to destroy the Egyptian nation and the Egyptian population by sending prostitutes with AIDS to Egypt,” Zahab said.
For the family of Hen, one of the two victims of the shooting, there was no question that she had been murdered by a terrorist.
In a written statement, the family said, “We believe that this was an act carried out by a terrorist against Israelis and Americans on American soil. We wish the American government will once and for all take a clear stand on this issue of terror and will act on it.”
There was an added tragic dimension to the attractive young woman’s death, for last Friday, the day after her murder, was to have been one of the happiest days of her life. Her family had planned a surprise party, at which Hen’s fiance would ask for her hand in marriage.
Instead her parents, Avinoam and Rachel Hen, and her younger brothers Nimrod and Udi, spent the day planning Victoria’s funeral service, which took place Sunday afternoon.
At the Hen family home in suburban Chatsworth, Calif., Hen, who had been born in Rishon le-Zion and raised in Beersheba, was remembered by her uncle, Yaron Ochana, as “princess who only wanted to do good.”
She eventually hoped to attend college, but worked in the meantime as an office manager and in public relations, before taking a position with a firm supplying ground services to El Al. At the airline, said family spokesman Joseph Knoller, “her main job was to actually smile at people, to actually make them feel comfortable when hey come up the line, and she definitely did that.”
Aminov, the second victim, was a man known in the community as “exceptionally giving and generous, one who would always help a friend or a stranger,” noted Rabbi Aron Tendler, a family friend.
So it was in line with his character that Aminov offered to drive a friend to the airport on July 4, despite warnings of possible terrorist attacks on America’s Independence Day.
His family was also worried and his son begged Aminov, “Don’t go. It’s dangerous,” reported Aminov’s brother-in- law, Mark Ezerzer.
While standing with his friend in the El Al check-in line, Aminov was hit in the chest by the gunman’s bullets and, despite frantic efforts to save him, died one hour later.
Aminov, moved 14 years ago from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles, where he became a diamond importer and owned a jewelry distribution company in the city’s downtown center.
He was deeply devoted to his family, which included his wife, who runs a hat shop, and five children, ranging in age from 2 to 9. There are three additional children, living in Israel, from Aminov’s first marriage.
His body was to be flown Sunday aboard El Al to Israel for burial, preceded by a hesped, or eulogy service, at Congregation Yad Avraham in North Hollywood, Calif., one of the Orthodox synagogues where the devout Aminov prayed.
Sarah Philips, a 61-year-old Canadian, was shot in the right ankle during the attack and underwent surgery at a local hospital.
FBI officials said Hadayet was carrying a 45-caliber semiautomatic Glock pistol, a 9-millimeter handgun and a 6- inch knife. When police searched his apartment after the attack, they found a sign taped to his door saying, “Read the Koran.”
According to several reports, Hadayet, who was standing about 20 feet from the El Al counter, shot Hen, then began firing at 80 to 90 people who were waiting in line for El Al’s single outbound flight, to Toronto and ultimately to Tel Aviv.
The bystanders immediately threw themselves to the floor, but Hadayet hit Aminov.
As Hadayet began shooting, an El Al security guard reportedly tackled him to the ground, trying to wrestle the gun away. Hadayet, who is said to have been powerfully built, around 5-foot-10 and between 200 and 250 pounds, reportedly struggled, and pistol-whipped the security guard in the forehead.
El Al’s security chief, Haim Sapir, then reportedly jumped over the El Al ticket counter, and also tried to stop Hadayet, who stabbed him in the back. Sapir then shot Hadayet, killing him.
Arie Golan, 54, an Israeli army veteran who was on his way to visit grandchildren in Israel, also rushed the gunman when the shooting began and joined the struggle. It was Aminov who had taken Golan to the airport, reports said.
Hadayet carried no identification on his person, officials said. Federal agents later found Hadayet’s car in an airport parking garage, cordoned off the area and searched for but found no explosives. Federal agents carrying a search warrant later examined Hadayet’s apartment, taking a computer, books, binders, boxes and bags of material.