I wouldn’t have correctly said this before, but when it seems as if the entire world is upside down . . . trust your judgment; it is. Some of us though, imbued with passion, somehow search to find a way to make a difference.
In the spring of 1995, 20-year-old Brandeis University student Alisa Flatow, who was studying at a women’s seminary in Israel, boarded a bus bound for the beach. She never reached her destination. A suicide bomber from Iranian-sponsored Palestinian Islamic Jihad drove up next to the bus and blew up his explosives-packed van.
Alisa’s father, Stephen, flew to Israel from his West Orange, N.J. home in time to hold his daughter’s hand one last time as doctors declared her brain dead and removed her from life support. In all, eight people died in the bombing. Palestinian Islamic Jihad proudly claimed responsibility, but eventually, U.S. courts traced support for the attack to Tehran.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Alisa’s tragic death—as well as the one when the United States, France, Russia, China, the U.K. and Germany concluded negotiations specifically designed to curtail Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. Despite government assurance that Iran’s adherence to the nuclear agreement will be closely monitored to prevent cheating, Iranian leaders continue to provide ample justification to doubt their intentions. To this day, Iran remains a prolific sponsor of global terrorism, and the Flatow case provided ground-breaking evidence of Iran’s ties to terrorism against Americans. It was also the first time—but not the last—a U.S. court held Iran responsible for the actions of its terrorist proxies.
Alisa’s father turned his family’s tragedy into a clarion call against state sponsors of terrorism. Previously, U.S. citizens had little ability to take direct action against foreign countries sponsoring terrorist acts. With help from the late Senator Frank Lautenberg, Flatow sought to change the law to permit U.S. citizens like him to seek justice. His quest became a landmark legal turning point in the fight against global extremism.
The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 codified the concept of legal immunity for foreign governments in U.S. courts. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 removed that legal immunity in cases involving foreign state sponsors of terrorism. The act opened the courtroom doors to U.S. citizens, allowing them to file lawsuits against foreign state sponsors of terror, although it did not provide for the collection of damages. To redress this weakness, Congress later that year created what is commonly called the Flatow Amendment, which declared that foreign state sponsors of terrorism “shall be liable to a United States national … for personal injury or death caused by acts of that [party]….” In short, the Flatow Amendment gave U.S. courts the power to award monetary damages to U.S. citizens victimized by state sponsored acts of terror.
US Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, speaks to the press as Stephen Flatow and his wife Rosalyn, parents of Alisa Flatow, an American student killed in the 1995 terrorist bombing of an Israeli bus that the Iran supported Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for, stand by in 1998. The family filed a lawsuit against Iran under an anti-terrorism law signed by US President Bill Clinton in 1996 which allows US citizens to sue for alleged state-sponsored terrorist acts. (JAMAL A. WILSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Flatow used his new legal right to sue Iran for sponsoring the attack that killed his daughter, the first U.S. case involving a government accused of terrorism. In March 1998, U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth issued a $247.5 million judgment against Iran. According to news reports, Lamberth told Flatow that he had “made something” of his tragic case and the “court seeks to deter further terrorist attacks against Americans.” Flatow has since collected only a fraction of the judgment, but his persistence opened the door for other U.S. victims of terror to seek a measure of justice.
Matthew Eisenfeld, a 25-year-old rabbinical student from West Hartford, Conn., and 22-year-old Sara Duker of Teaneck, N.J., were among the 26 people killed in a February 25, 1996 Hamas bus bombing in Jerusalem. Their families won a $327 million judgment against Iran in 2000 for sponsoring the attack. A U.S. court held Iran liable in 2006 for the 1996 bombing of an American military dormitory in Saudi Arabia and awarded $254 million to the families of 17 victims. The courts also found Iran liable for the 1983 Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon,and awarded more than $10 billion to its victims.
Unfortunately, the distance between justice and compensation is a long one; the Flatows and other families have struggled to collect their settlements. However, these cases set an important precedent in the fight to hold accountable sponsors of terrorism and established an indelible factual record that cannot be challenged.
Alisa is just one of many Americans who have died because of Iranian support for terrorists. Her legacy lives on in the continuing battle against terror and extremism, and in shining the light of scrutiny on those that allow it to happen.
By Josh Lipowsky
Mr. Lipowsky is a research analyst with the Counter Extremism Project.