Twelve years after al Qaeda hijackers flew jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon – killing nearly 3,000 people – a renewed push is underway in Congress to ensure that victims of terrorism on American soil can hold its foreign sponsors to account in U.S. courts.
In the House next week, New York Congressmen Peter King, a Republican, and Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, are expected to introduce the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). New York Democrat Charles Schumer will sponsor the same bill in the Senate.
Congressional aides would not discuss the bills in advance of filing. Sen. Schumer, however, has said JASTA is needed “due to flawed court decisions that have deprived victims of terrorism on American soil, including those injured by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, of their day in court.”
JASTA’s second purpose: to choke off the money pipeline flowing to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups by making those who fund them liable for damages in American courts.
“JASTA will allow all victims of terrorism in the U.S. what was intended by Congress – the right to hold terrorist financiers accountable in civil court,” said Sharon Premoli, who was in her office on the 80th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center when the first plane struck.
“I’m all for this new bill. It’s important to deter terrorism and provide justice for victims,” said Rachel Ehrenfeld, an authority on terrorist financing and director of the New York-based noprofit American Center for Democracy.
HUNDREDS SUED, A DOZEN REMAIN
In the wake of 9/11, thousands of survivors, family members and business interests that suffered billions of dollars in losses sued several hundred defendants alleged to have provided financial and other material support to al Qaeda and others terrorist organizations. Those lawsuits were consolidated into a single sprawling federal case in 2003.
Among the defendants were the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an official Saudi charity and several Saudi princes. In 2005, however, the Saudis were dismissed from the case, principally on grounds of sovereign immunity.
The courts for other technical reasons of jurisdiction later dismissed most of the rest of the defendants. One striking reason: Under the Alien Tort Statute defendants must be shown to have committed a wrongful act in violation of international law, but the plaintiff/victims did not do so because no definition of “terrorism” existed “under customary international law as of September 11, 2001,” according to New York’s Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
Today, only about a dozen defendants remain, according to plaintiff’s attorney Jodi Flowers, of the Motley Rice law firm in Mount Pleasant, S.C.
On Monday, Flowers and other attorneys for the 9/11 plaintiffs took their case to the Supreme Court in an attempt to overturn a trio of adverse rulings by the Second Circuit in April.
Schumer and others contend the courts have misconstrued the law and Congressional intent that specifically authorized lawsuits and created exceptions to the doctrine of sovereign immunity in cases of terrorism.”
“Substantial evidence establishes that (the Saudi defendants) had provided funding and sponsorship to al Qaeda without which it could not have carried out the attacks,” Schumer said in 2011.
If passed, JASTA would put Saudi Arabia and similar deep pockets back on the liability hook. Sen. Schumer and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa) first introduced JASTA in December 2009. It was reintroduced in 2011 with broad bipartisan support, but drew little media attention and did not become law.
9/11 Families for Justice Against Terrorism, a group that represents more than 6,600 survivors and relatives, said it expects “a strong bipartisan cast of co-sponsors” this time, too.
The group started an online petition drive where JASTA supporters can urge Congress to pass it.
Terry Strada is a member of the 9/11 group. Her husband, Tom, worked at Cantor Fitzgerald and died in the North Tower.
She said JASTA would overturn the “erroneous” court rulings that held American courts have no jurisdiction when it comes to foreign terrorist financiers who gave their money abroad – even when an attack took place in the U.S.
“The problem can best be understood by example: If we discover someone intentionally gave aid or money to the Boston Marathon bombers and that money had been given to them outside our borders – no accountability from a civil action would be possible,” she said.
TWO PROBES, QUESTIONS REMAIN
Two official accounts of 9/11 – Congress’s Joint Inquiry and the 9/11 Commission – have not told the public the complete story about what happened and why, particularly regarding who funded the hijackers.
For example, 28 pages were redacted from the Joint Inquiry’s report regarding “specific sources of foreign support for some of the September 11 hijackers while they were in the United States.”
Further, former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired the inquiry, has said that neither Congress nor the Commission were told about an FBI investigation into apparent connections between the hijackers and a Saudi family with ties to the Royal family who abruptly fled their Sarasota area home two weeks before the attacks.
BrowardBulldog.org first disclosed the existence of the post-9/11 inquiry in Sarasota two years ago. “The public still does not know the whole story about who bankrolled the attacks. It is still a secret,” Strada said. “Graham, after learning about the hijackers’ Sarasota cell, has been calling for a reopening of the 9/11 investigation and the transparency that has been totally absent over the past 12 years.”
Terrorism expert Ehrenfeld, while supportive of JASTA, is skeptical of the U.S.’s intentions about getting at the root of problem because “politics are dictating who is considered a terrorist and who is not.” “I have many doubts because if the government wanted to do something serious, the government would have done it already,” Ehrenfeld said.