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As Fbi Nears End to Probe of El Al Attack, Officials Say Terror Has Always Been a Focus

September 4, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The FBI has viewed the July 4 shooting at the El Al ticket counter of the Los Angeles International Airport as a possible act of terrorism from day one, according to a letter sent to a New York congressman last month.

In a letter dated Aug. 16, John Collinwood, assistant director of public and congressional affairs at the FBI, says that the Los Angeles office of the FBI opened a case on the shooting in which two people were killed as a terrorist investigation immediately after it occurred, even though the agency did not publicly acknowledge this.

“In any case, terrorism has certainly not been ruled out in this case, and we do not intend this interim period of information gathering to imply that it has been,” the letter continued. “It is, in fact, being investigated as such.”

He was responding to Engel’s letter, sent in late July, expressing concern that the FBI’s Los Angeles field office said just hours after the attack that there was no evidence to indicate terrorism.

This view contrasted sharply with that of Israel, which immediately classified the shooting as a terrorist incident

It also prompted outrage among many American Jewish leaders, who said they were puzzled by the FBI’s response, given that the gunman was of Egyptian origin and had reportedly made anti-Semitic and anti-Israel statements in the past.

Engel said that because the suspect reportedly expressed these sentiments before the attack, “the presumption that this was an act of terror on United States soil is not hard to reach.”

“I’m outraged at this flip-flop,” Engel told JTA on Tuesday. “They’re almost like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.”

Engel’s office said that the FBI’s response only recently surfaced because mail being sent to the Capitol is being delayed by anthrax searches.

On Independence Day at 11:30 a.m., Hesham Mohammed Hadayat, an Egyptian man, opened fire at the ticket counter of the Israeli national airline, killing Yaakov Aminov, 46, and El Al ticket agent Victoria Hen, 25.

Hadayat sprayed bullets around the area before being shot and killed by El Al security guards.

At a news conference hours after the attack, Richard Garcia, a Los Angeles field office official, said, “There’s nothing to indicate terrorism,” saying the presumption was that the shooting was an isolated incident.

FBI spokesman Matt McLaughlin in Los Angeles said Garcia’s comments were “right on the money,” but that evidence in the immediate aftermath led the FBI to view the shooting as a possible terrorist act, and that it was not asked about its designation.

The FBI defines terrorism as the “unlawful use of force and violence” to further “social or political objectives.”

At the time, McLaughlin told JTA that the FBI is waiting until there is “clear evidence indicating motive or until the investigation is concluded” before labeling the incident.

“It’s not a new designation of this case,” he said Tuesday. “It was declared a possible terrorist incident on July 4th; common sense dictated that.”

American Jewish leaders almost immediately raised concerns that the FBI was not investigating the terrorism angle sufficiently. A group of rabbis threatened to sue the FBI unless it called the shooting a terrorist act.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, met with FBI Director Robert Mueller shortly thereafter and said he was told that the terrorism angle was being reviewed.

“He said they didn’t eliminate it and would pursue it as a terrorism incident,” Foxman said of his conversation with Mueller.

Foxman said Jewish leaders were concerned because terrorism had been ruled out quickly in investigations of other attacks against prominent Jews, citing the assassination of Kach movement founder Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1995.

“For some reason, the bureau would always eliminate terrorism as a cause, while at the same time alerting the community of the possible threats from terrorists,” Foxman said. “There was a disconnect.”

McLaughlin said the investigation is close to a conclusion and that a final report should be issued within the next few weeks.

In addition to terrorism, he said the FBI is considering designating Hadayat’s act a hate crime, which is defined as being motivated by hatred of one’s race or religion, and not to advance a political ideology.

An El Al spokeswoman said the airline would have no comment until the final report on the investigation is complete.

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