Motive Behind the Madness

As the painstaking probe into the July 4 killings at Los Angeles International Airport continues, the basic question that faced investigators and the public from the beginning remains unresolved.

Was the deliberate shooting by Egyptian-born Hesham Mohamed Hadayet at the El Al check-in counter a clear act of terrorism or an "isolated incident" by a gunman whose motives are so far unknown?

To Israelis, and much of the Jewish community, the answer is clear.

"From the way the attack was conducted, the way the gunman skipped dozens of other foreign airlines to target El Al, our experience tells us it is terrorism," Yuval Rotem, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, has insisted from day one.

His view was immediately endorsed by high Israeli officials, including Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Transportation Minister Efraim Sneh.

Similarly, Amotz Brandes explains, "any aggressive act designed to create fear among the civilian population, whether the perpetrator acted on his own or as part of a religious or political group, is terrorism."

Brandes is a member of The Chameleon Group, a private company of Israeli and American intelligence and security experts, headquartered in the Canoga Park. Brandes worked in the security branch of El Al for four years.

By way of analogy, Brandes points to the shooting spree by Buford Furrow at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in 1999.

"It doesn’t matter whether Furrow acted on his own or as a member of the Aryan Nations, the outcome was the same," he says. "A crime is a crime, whether you call it ‘organized crime’ or just ‘crime.’ At the end of the day, there is really no distinction."

Paul Bresson, spokesman at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., hews to a narrower definition of terrorism. As a working rule, the FBI defines terrorism as "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce government, civilian population or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."

To date, Bresson says, the FBI has uncovered no evidence to meet the FBI yardstick of terrorism. "We may uncover such evidence in the next hour, or tomorrow, or next month, but so far, we have not," he says.

Asked for clear examples of "terrorism," Bresson cites Sept. 11 and the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City as showing clear political objectives and intent to intimidate the federal government.

Ian Lesser, an international security expert with the RAND Corp. and the Clinton administration for 10 years, can see some merit in both the Israeli and FBI perspectives.

"It’s always difficult to define what is or isn’t terrorism," Lesser says. "For the expert investigator, the emphasis is on motive, on links and connections, not how many people are involved. Even a political motivation may not add up to terrorism."

On the other hand, in the "pragmatic definition" of terrorism, Lesser says, "It is not unreasonable to give weight to circumstantial evidence of a person’s political or racial views" and on that basis, conclude that a terrorist act has been committed.