NEW YORK (Jul. 15)
A group of rabbis is threatening to sue the FBI unless it calls the shooting at Los Angeles’ International Airport a terrorist act.
Although mainstream Jewish groups are distancing themselves from such a move — the head of the Anti- Defamation League called it “absurd” — the sentiment of the suit reflects widespread Jewish outrage over the FBI’s reluctance to brand the incident a terrorist act.
On July 4, an Egyptian national, Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, fired at El Al’s ticket counter at LAX, murdering two and injuring three before being killed by El Al security officials.
The FBI’s failure to call it a terrorist act “violates” its own guidelines on defining terror, Rabbi Avi Weiss of New York told reporters atop the steps to the FBI’s headquarters in Manhattan last week.
It also follows an FBI pattern to avoid labeling terrorist acts as such for political reasons and puts American lives at risk in the war on terror, said Weiss, the national president of Amcha — The Coalition for Jewish Concerns.
He said a lawsuit by Amcha rabbis against the FBI could be filed within the next two weeks.
The lawsuit could be based on the grounds that the FBI failed to protect U.S. citizens, Amcha officials said.
A self-proclaimed “nonestablishment” group, Amcha has often been out front of more mainstream Jewish organizations with its activist — and some say extremist — approach.
While Israel was quick to call the act terrorism, the FBI is waiting until there is “clear evidence indicating motive or until the investigation is concluded” before labeling the incident, said Matt McLaughlin, an FBI spokesman in Los Angeles.
The FBI’s position has not changed despite increased Jewish pressure since the incident occurred.
The FBI employs the definition of terror devised by the Code of Federal Regulations, which characterizes it as the “unlawful use of force and violence” to further “social or political objectives,” according to Cheryl Mimura, an FBI spokeswoman in L.A.
“Duh!” said Weiss, repeating and pointing to the headline of the lead editorial in the national Jewish weekly, the Forward, that day.
“Enough dithering. What happened at Los Angeles International Airport July 4 is not a tough call. Not unless you don’t want to know the answer,” its editors charged.
In addition to widespread denunciation in the Jewish media, the New York Post also carried an editorial attacking the FBI’s stance.
“Law enforcement should not jump to conclusions, but this head-in-the-clouds approach is ridiculous,” wrote analyst Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank.
Echoing the words of Jewish activists, Pipes called the case reminiscent of past FBI missteps.
In one example, he cites the 1994 Brooklyn Bridge shooting of a van full of Chasidic boys by a Lebanese taxi driver that resulted in the death of 16-year old Ari Halberstam.
The FBI called it “road rage” until in 2000, after years of lobbying by the victim’s mother, the bureau reclassifed it as terrorism.
“These expressions of denial obstruct effective counterterrorism,” Pipes wrote.
Had the FBI begun investigating previous terror attacks as such, America might be better equipped in fighting the war on terror, Weiss said.
Classifying the case as terrorism would raise the level of the investigation, Weiss said.
For example, El Sayyad Nosair, the man convicted for killing Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990, was later found to have ties to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Because the murder was investigated as a homicide, Arab documents containing information about that plot went untranslated until after the bombing, according to Amcha.
When the FBI says they can’t find a motive, “excuse me, but what planet do they live on?” asked Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Its failure to conduct the investigation as a suspected terrorist incident — which could then be downgraded — raises questions about how seriously the FBI is investigating the case, said Clawson.
For Jewish organizational leaders, the July 4 shooting at El Al was surely terrorism. And they are anxious for the FBI to see it as such.
It “has all the ingredients of what I consider” terrorism, said Shula Bahat, associate executive director of the American Jewish Committee
“Infused with hate toward a specific people,” Hadayet had the ideology of terror, borne out of an Egyptian culture which breeds a “vicious anti-Semitism,” Bahat said.
For its part, the AJCommittee will continue to press the FBI on this case, as it did with the Halberstam case, she said.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the shooting was “clearly an act of terror.”
And the FBI’s “reluctance to use that labeling is troubling,” he said.
But more critical than characterizing the incident is why the FBI has not yet produced results from its investigation, he said.
“The longer this goes on, the more questions it raises,” he said.
According to Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, the FBI’s failure to label the act terror is “even more baffling” than in previous cases, given America’s current war on terror.
“I don’t think it’s politics,” said Foxman, who said he contacted the FBI director last week and is waiting for a response.
Still, he said, the Amcha lawsuit is “equally” as “absurd” as the FBI’s inaction.
The FBI is “not an enemy,” but an “ally,” Foxman said.
“This is a disagreement in a technical definition. For any element of the Jewish community to sue is disproportionate and absurd,” he said, echoing the views of others in the community.