Backgrounder Kahane Chai Was Fundamental to Passage of U.S. Terrorism Law

A federal appeals court’s unanimous decision upholding the State Department designation of Kahane Chai as a terrorist organization is a reminder that the U.S. government’s anti-terror efforts aren’t aimed only at Muslim groups, despite frequent complaints by some American and other Arab groups. Indeed, it was the 1994 attack on Palestinians in Hebron by a supporter of Kahane Chai, a militant Jewish group based in the West Bank, as well as Hamas bus bombings the same year against Israeli civilians, that helped prompt a major U.S. law against fund-raising for foreign terrorist organizations.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia acted unanimously Tuesday in supporting the State Department’s 2004 redesignation of Kahane Chai as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The group is an offshoot of the Jewish Defense League founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was assassinated by an Arab man in New York in 1990.

Chief Judge Douglas Ginsburg said that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell acted reasonably in reaffirming the designation because of Kahane Chai’s links to death threats against Israeli police officers and former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The designations were made under provisions of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The law makes it illegal to knowingly provide funding or other forms of material support to groups the secretary of state designates as terrorist groups. The initial designation was made in 1997 but, under a sunset provision, designations had to be renewed every two years.

Currently, 42 groups are designated following the State Department’s preparation of detailed administrative records that have to be approved by the Justice and Treasury Departments. The list includes Middle Eastern groups such as Al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah and half a dozen other Palestinian groups, as well as Kahane Chai and its predecessor Kach, and various organizations in Asia, Latin America, Africa and Europe.

These 1996 provisions were a major step in the effort to curb terrorism funding. U.S counterterrorism laws previously focused primarily on state sponsors of terrorism, but beginning in the early 1990s there was a growing awareness that terrorist groups were increasingly turning to front companies and fund raising among sympathizers instead of depending for financial support on terrorist-supporting countries such as Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria.

The law to curb fund raising for terrorist organizations was precipitated by two series of terrorist attacks in the Middle East.

The first event was the action of Dr. Baruch Goldstein, an immigrant to Israel from Brooklyn, who shot and killed 29 Arabs at a Hebron mosque in February 1994 before being beaten to death. He was believed to have been affiliated with Kahane Chai or Kach, small groups of right-wing Jewish extremists who had been involved in several terrorist acts and who raised funds in the United States.

The second event was a series of deadly bus bombings in Israel later that year by Hamas, the group that won Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections earlier this year.

Administration teams drafted new legislation that was introduced for the 1995 congressional session. That bill was enacted after modifications and lengthy hearings more than a year later as the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

At the same time, the Clinton administration took a stop-gap measure, issuing an executive order in January 1995 freezing the assets of 12 Middle Eastern terrorist groups on the grounds that they threatened to use force to undermine the Middle East peace process. The “dirty dozen” included 10 Palestinian groups and two Jewish groups — Kahane Chai and Kach — that have since merged.

A salient difference, however, is that the Israeli government declared Kahane Chai a terrorist group in 1994, and the group is condemned by most Israelis and Jews as an extremist fringe element. Meanwhile, Hamas, Hezbollah and other Islamist terrorist groups have widespread support, overt or tacit, from many Palestinians and other Arabs and their leaders.

The writer is a Washington-based counterterrorism consultant and a former senior adviser in the State Department Counterterrorism Office.

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