Airport shooting sharpens debate on defining terror

U.S., Israel disagree over how to classify Los Angeles attack

July 06, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The fatal shooting attack at the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport on the Fourth of July has sharpened the debate over what kinds of violent crimes should be considered acts of terrorism.

Federal authorities refused yesterday to classify the attack as a case of terrorism, even though they said the gunman had gone to the airport intending to kill. In their remarks, U.S. officials indicated that in their view, terrorism involves solely those crimes committed by people linked to terrorist groups.

FBI Special Agent Richard Garcia said the case lacks a key ingredient, in that the assailant - Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, an Egyptian immigrant - does not appear to have associated with any terrorist organization.

"It could be deemed as a hate crime," Garcia said, "no different than the church bombings and such like that."

Ari Fleischer, President Bush's spokesman, added, "There is no evidence, no indication at this time that this is terrorist."

But Israeli officials were adamant that in their view, the attack amounted to an act of terrorism.

"If someone walks into El Al heavily armed with weapons and starts to shoot at people there because it is El Al and because it is the Israeli national airline, this is terrorism," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

A lot of it is terminology, Regev said, playing down any possible dispute with the FBI.

Yet the debate carries major significance. Since Sept. 11, a terrorist attack on U.S. soil has come to be viewed not just as a violent crime but as something akin to an act of war and, in Bush's words, a particularly evil one.

Classifying the airport attack as terrorism could deepen the kinship between the United States and Israel as that of two nations confronting the same threat. This point was raised by Israel's consul general in Los Angeles, Yuval Rotem.

"For many of us, it was a reminder of our bonds - an attack on Israel and the United States on Fourth of July," Rotem said. "It was a very unfortunate event, and I think that it's no coincidence that it was done in that way in that place."

The problem of how to define terrorism has long confounded officials of the U.S. government and elsewhere. As the latest State Department terrorism report acknowledges, "No one definition of terrorism has gained universal acceptance."

But Garcia, the agent who spoke for the FBI at a news conference yesterday, seemed to have adopted a narrower definition of terrorism than those that are officially accepted by the State Department and the FBI.

The State Department's Patterns of Global Terrorism states, "The term `terrorism' means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience."

The FBI defines it as "the unlawful use of force or 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."

A "suspected terrorist incident" is "a potential act of terrorism in which responsibility for the act cannot be attributed at the time to a known or suspected terrorist group or individual."

After Sept. 11, Bush adopted a finely drawn definition of the targets of America's new war: terrorist groups "of global reach." The main intent of the war was to demolish al-Qaida, the terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden.

This term "of global reach" angered supporters of Israel because it suggested that Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad - the groups that specifically attack Israelis - fell outside the scope of U.S. counter-terrorist efforts. The Bush administration, in response to criticism, later stepped up legal and financial actions against those groups.

The definitional problem has also put the United States at odds with Arab countries that support the Palestinian cause. Many Arab officials, while condemning attacks on innocent civilians, are less critical of Palestinian attacks that are viewed in the West as terrorism. Arab officials frequently stress that those attacks must be seen in the context of a 35-year struggle against Israeli occupation.

Syria, which supports the Lebanese group Hezbollah, insists that attacks on Israelis are legitimate forms of resistance, and it condemns what it calls Israeli "state terrorism" against Palestinians.

The issue has come up in other conflicts as well. India describes attacks on its soldiers and civilians in Kashmir as "cross-border terrorism" by Pakistan. And in recent months, India has sent hundreds of thousands of troops to a tense border to register its point.

"When a violent act is aimed against a particular country, that country will define the act as terrorism and the perpetrators as terrorists," writes Boaz Ganor, executive director of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel.

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