Despite legal hurdles, some victims and families may be able to pursue justice against foreign nations that support or assist international terrorism. A new law, passed in 2016, provides US citizens with the unprecedented opportunity to hold state sponsors of terrorism accountable for the heartless acts of terrorist organizations.
- Saudi Arabia
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The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which became law in September 2016, allows victims and their families to file suit against foreign countries and governmental agencies who provide support to terrorists.
Terrorism Injury & Death Lawsuits
Since 9/11, terrorists have committed at least 85 fatal attacks on American soil, according to the US Government Accountability Office. And while the majority of these terrorist acts were carried out by home-grown extremists from the far right, jihadist groups, many of whom receive material support from foreign governments, have had a far higher death toll.
Terror's Toll On American Citizens
In the United States, at least 119 people have died in terrorist acts committed by violent Islamist organizations, including the Orlando nightclub attack claimed by Islamic State (IS, ISIS or ISIL). International terrorism causes mayhem and horrific consequences for American citizens, both those in the US and stationed overseas.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, nearly 1,700 civilian contractors have been killed since September 11th, 2001. Another 37,000 have suffered personal injuries in the two war zones, according to a ProPublica analysis of Labor Department data.
How many of these deaths and disabling injuries can be traced back to the government coffers of a foreign state? The question is impossible to answer, but the suspicion that inspired it is most certainly true: some foreign countries provide material support to terrorists.
State Sponsors Of Terror
It would seem reasonable, then, that foreign sponsors of terrorism should be held accountable for assisting in heinous acts. But for centuries, legal precedent made it nearly impossible for foreign states to be hailed into US courts.
Before the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act was passed, victims of terrorism could sue foreign nations in American courts, but only if the state was classified as a state sponsor of terrorism by the US Department of State. That's a limited roster of countries "determined [...] to have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism," the State Department writes. Today, only four nations are included on the list:
- North Korea (Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK)
Needless to say, it's become clear over recent decades that North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Syria aren't the only countries that experts believe have or continue to provide material support to acts of terrorism.
9/11 Victims, Families Pursue Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia, officially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is one glaring omission. As the leading proponent and evangelist for Wahhabi Salafism, an extreme, and extremely-conservative, form of Sunni Islam, Saudi Arabia has undoubtedly contributed, both ideologically and financially, to most extremist Islamic activity. Strict adherents believe that anyone who fails to conform to Wahhabism's literal interpretation of the Quran are enemies worthy of death.
James Woolsey, director of the CIA under President Clinton, called the Wahhabi doctrine "the soil in which Al-Qaeda and its sister terrorist organizations are flourishing." In 2013, a commission of the European Parliament cited Wahhabi charities and wealthy Saudi donors, along with those in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as the nexus of "support and supply of arms to rebel groups around the world."
"A Major Source Of Financing"
Officials at the US State Department have agreed with this assessment for years. In the 2006 International Narcotics Control Strategy report, federal experts wrote, "Saudi donors and unregulated charities have been a major source of financing to extremist and terrorist groups over the past 25 years."
It's likely, though not indisputably proven, that Saudi funds are currently being used to prop up the Islamic State, as well as Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra Front, now Tahrir al-Sham), a group of largely Syrian jihadists who continue to control a substantial swath of the border between Syria and Turkey.
But of course, Saudi Arabia is also the US' most-influential ally in the Middle East and the world's largest oil exporter. Over nearly 100 years of positive diplomatic relations, the United States has frequently overlooked the more controversial aspects of Saudi society and foreign policy.
A Broader Set Of Rights For Terror Victims
JASTA expanded the scope of this right, granting US federal courts the ability to exercise personal jurisdiction over any foreign state that provides support for terrorism, whether or not that nation happens to appear on the official list of terror sponsors.
In essence, the law restricts the doctrine of foreign sovereign immunity, which usually prevents American citizens from suing international governments or government agencies. Today, under the legal regime established by the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, private citizens who were harmed in terrorist acts can sue the country or countries that supported those acts through aid.
The Justice Against Sponsors Of Terrorism Act
Despite our foreign policy stance toward Saudi Arabia, it's important to remember that the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act was passed in large part to facilitate a long-standing civil case against the Kingdom.
Co-sponsored by Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Chuck Schumer (D-New York), JASTA was a direct response to September 11, in which nearly 3,000 people were killed and another 6,000 suffered personal injuries. Those victims, the senators reasoned, should be able to hold the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia responsible, if they could prove that Saudi resources had provided support to al Qaeda.
A number of policy experts, however, opposed the idea. President Obama was among them, but he was primarily concerned about the potential for retaliatory legislation. If the US passed JASTA, what was to stop other countries from doing the same and weakening foreign sovereign immunity in their own courts? The United States, Obama argued, could find itself on the hook in foreign courts.
Congress Overrides Obama's Veto
After being passed by both the House and Senate, the legislation was vetoed by President Obama. Five days later, both Chambers of Congress voted to override the President's veto, according to the Washington Post. On September 30, 2016, the law had its intended effect when a mother who lost her husband, US Navy Commander Patrick Dunn, in 9/11 filed suit against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
In March 2017, a class action was filed in a Manhattan federal court accusing Saudi Arabia and specific Saudi embassy officials of providing support to the terrorist hijackers. The case represents the claims of over 800 victims' families and 1,500 first responders.
Enforcing Court Judgments & Collecting Compensation
As we've seen, it's now possible to file suit against a state sponsor of terrorism for personal injuries, emotional trauma or a loved one's tragic death. But what happens if you win? Enforcing the judgment of a US court overseas is difficult. Few international governments are simply going to pay up because a federal court tells them to.
Instead, most plaintiffs will have to go after the foreign government's assets within the United States, something that, until 2008, was usually prohibited by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). In 2008, Congress altered the FSIA to open up US-based assets of foreign state sponsors of terrorism for the execution of court judgments. In contrast to prior interpretations of FSIA, plaintiffs no longer have to prove that the assets demanded are the property of the terrorist state itself.
Now, judgments can be executed against domestic assets possessed by foreign state agencies, political subdivisions (including local governments) and instrumentalities. Utilizing these expanded rights in practice, however, has proved an arduous process.
Rubin v. Islamic Republic Of Iran
A group of American victims learned this lesson in 2003, when they were awarded $71.5 million against the Islamic Republic of Iran. In 1997, the terrorist organization Hamas sent three suicide bombers to a mall in Jerusalem. One American citizen, a 14-year-old boy named Yael Botvin, was killed in the ensuing blasts. Several other Americans were injured.
And since Iran finances Hamas, a group of victims and their families sued the country, accusing Iranian government officials, in part, of training the bomb maker whose explosives were detonated in the attack. Iran's attorneys didn't attend any court hearings, so a District Judge in Washington, D.C. entered a default judgement of $423.5 million in compensation for the families.
Needless to say, the Islamic Republic of Iran didn't honor the judgment. So the plaintiffs tried to go after the country's US-based assets, namely thousands of millenia-old clay artifacts that Iran's National Museum loaned to the Field Museum and the University of Chicago. But a judge for the District Court of the Northern District of Illinois ruled in 2014 that the artifacts, since they were being used for scholarship, couldn't be seized.
Currently, there is some dispute as to whether the assets must be implicated in commercial activity within the United States. The case is now before the Supreme Court, who heard oral arguments on December 4, 2017.
JASTA's Widening Application
The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act is also being used to sue Israel. In February 2017, a group of 37 plaintiffs filed suit against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, officials at the Israeli Ministry of Defense and several pro-Israel American charities for "financing, encouraging, or participating in war crimes [genocide and ethnic cleansing]" in the Palestinian territories.
These alleged activities, their complaint says, fall under the definition of "international terrorism" and are thus subject to JASTA. The case is now before the US District Court for the District of Columbia.
And in 2016, the family of an American-Israeli journalist who was brutally beheaded by ISIS filed suit against the national government of Syria, arguing that Bashar Al-Assad's regime has been providing money and weaponry to the Islamic State. Syria has been an officially-recognized state sponsor of terror since 1979.
Learn More In A Free Consultation
Our experienced attorneys are now offering free consultations to people and families who were harmed by terrorism. If you were injured in a terrorist attack, or your loved one was killed due to terror, our lawyers can help. You may be eligible to file suit against a foreign country whose support led to the attack. To learn more about your legal options, call our attorneys today for a free consultation.