It seems like so long ago. Do you remember the years 2000 to 2004, when pizza parlors and cafes and discotheques were being blown up by Palestinian terrorists on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv?
Over those four years of the Second Intifada, according to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, more than 130 Palestinian terror attacks killed over 1,000 Israelis and wounded thousands more.
I remember how we would brace ourselves for ongoing news of these attacks—which seemed to come weekly. There was almost a sense of despair: How does a free and open society stop suicide bombers who are determined to blow themselves up in the midst of civilians?
By some kind of military miracle, Israel found a way to fight back and prevail. After a particularly horrifying attack on a group of Jews enjoying a Passover seder, Israel launched a massive military campaign to root out terror cells and weapon factories throughout the West Bank. It was called Operation Defensive Shield. This was the loud war that received endless coverage in the media.
Journalism thrives on these kind of wars, when reporters and photojournalists can embed themselves with troops and report from the ground. News consumers are riveted by the dramatic war footage and the human stories that come out of this reporting. Operation Defensive Shield was no exception.
But while the military operation was getting most of the attention, another war was going on, one without reporters and cameras.
This was the quiet war against terror financing, the war we rarely hear about, the war that follows the money and is indispensable.
While one war was rooting out the terrorists, this other war was rooting out the money that funded those terrorists.
The inside story of this financial war on terror is the subject of our cover story this week, as our political editor, Shmuel Rosner, reviews “Harpoon: Inside the Covert War Against Terrorism’s Money Masters.”
I remember meeting the co-author of the book, attorney activist Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, in her Tel Aviv office during the Second Intifada. She had this soft spoken demeanor.
While pro-Israel activists work on “education,” she works on seizing terrorist assets.
I’m sure there’s plenty of top secret information she couldn’t share with me. But what she did share was interesting enough. Darshan-Leitner was fighting her own war against terror, using international courts. She was moved by a visit in the early 1990s to the Southern Poverty Law Center in Atlanta, the civil rights group that used lawsuits to take on neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. This inspired her to eventually start Shurat HaDin (“Letter of the Law”), an Israel-based nonprofit legal center that has been at the forefront of the legal fight on terrorism.
We often talk about the importance of the “PR War”— about how public opinion is so important in the new media age. Darshan-Leitner has gone in another direction. The tools of her trade are depositions, lawsuits, testimonies under oaths and other legal weapons. While pro-Israel activists work on “education,” she works on seizing terrorist assets. She battles not in the court of public opinion but the court of legal opinion.
Over the past 15 years, according to the Shurat HaDin website, her team has represented terror victims everywhere from Israel and the United States to Canada and Iran. Her group “files motions, seizes assets, and sends warnings to state-sponsors of terror letting them know the consequences of supporting known terror groups. Shurat HaDin has put terrorists and terror-sponsoring organizations on their heels, forcing them to spend vast sums on legal fees and preventing them from using the Western banking industry to fund terrorism.”
Since its inception, Shurat HaDin has won over $1 billion in judgments, which has led to the freezing of more than $600 million in assets around the world, with more than $120 million in actual awards. Talk about metrics.
So, when she emailed me a few weeks ago to tell me about her new book, it was a no-brainer. This is an important and fascinating story. It reminds us that the war against terror can’t be won by tanks and troops alone. The quiet warriors who combat terror in courts and global banks are just as critical. While Operation Defensive Shield was playing on television, the special unit Harpoon was operating. in clandestine places that starved the terrorists of funds and resources.
One of the roles of journalism is to dig behind the headlines and show you what doesn’t always appear in the mainstream press. Darshan-Leitner’s new book does just that, and it elevates the unsung heroes in the war on terror.