American courts can help deter those aiding and abetting global terrorism

The family of the Henkins originally filed a $360 million wrongful-death lawsuit against Iran and Syria in federal court in Washington. All three banks named in the lawsuit have been sanctioned for funding terrorism.

Court proceedings. Credit: New Africa/Shutterstock.
Court proceedings. Credit: New Africa/Shutterstock.
Jonathan Missner
Jonathan Missner

The Hamas cell ambushed the couple without warning and executed them in a bloody hail of bullets while their four young sons watched. It was 2015 and Eitam Henkin—an ordained rabbi, American citizen and doctoral student—was driving in the West Bank with his Israeli wife Na’ama and their four children.

The Palestinian attackers sprayed automatic gunfire at the family’s car until Eitam, wounded by a hail of bullets, was forced to pull over. Two terrorists then approached the Henkins’ car, intending to kidnap an Israeli to barter for Hamas prisoners. After a struggle, the terrorists murdered Eitam and Na’ama at close range with automatic gunfire, leaving the children for dead. Watching from the back seat, the boys survived the attack, but the horror of the violence will remain with them forever.

Six years after the couple’s vicious murder, a U.S. federal court has ruled—for the first time ever—that Iranian financial institutions that sponsor terrorists are liable for the terrorists’ crimes. By holding the banks responsible, the ruling acknowledges that acts of terror do not exist in a vacuum.

This momentous decision sends a clear message to terror organizations and their financiers: Justice will be served.

The court ruled that three Iranian Banks (Markazi, Melli and Saderat) along with Syria, Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Ministry of Information and Security are all liable for the brutal murders of Eitam and Na’ama, whose children were 9, 7, 4, and 10 months old at the time of the attack. An award of monetary damages will be determined at a later date.

The family of the Henkins originally filed a $360 million wrongful-death lawsuit against Iran and Syria in federal court in Washington. All three banks named in the lawsuit have been sanctioned for funding terrorism.

The verdict marks the second time in one week that entities bankrolling terrorism are being held publicly accountable. Federal agents recently announced charges in a first-of-its-kind attempt by Iran to kidnap a U.S.-based human-rights activist. Brooklyn resident Masih Alinejad, an Iranian American, became a target after she used her social-media accounts to highlight Tehran’s treatment of women and its mandate requiring women to wear head scarves.

In that instance, the Iranian government unsuccessfully tried to lure Alinejad to Iran through her relatives, then paid investigators to spy in the United States.

In Alinejad’s case, a California resident has been charged with financing the scheme. Kidnapping conspiracy charges have been announced against four Iranians who remain at-large in Iran.

Cases that find terrorist groups such as Hamas, and also their funders and financial conduits— responsible for these heinous acts are important steps towards justice for victims of terror, but there is still a long way to go.

The court’s recent actions are a signal that you cannot kill American citizens or target them with terrorist acts without consequences.

After the 9/11 attacks, the United States significantly shifted its focus to combat terrorism. We have seen the United States not just pursue terrorist organizations but make changes in the way money is accessible to them by cutting off the flow of funding. Financing is the oxygen needed for terrorism.

That Congress has enacted numerous terrorism litigation statutes is heartening. But despite legislators’ clear intent, there have been many disappointing rulings related to financiers who are aiding and abetting terrorism that have dissuaded others from following this path. Still, this avenue must continue to be pursued.

Changes in the legislative branch in terms of sanctioning countries that support terrorism have made headway. In addition, the executive branch currently maintains lists of bad actors who have participated in state-sponsored terrorism. And now in this watershed moment, the judicial branch is joining in the fight by punishing those who transfer funds to terrorist organizations.

Halting terrorism requires following the money to its source—and then shutting the funders down. The recent court ruling in D.C. federal court should serve as a further deterrent to Iran’s terrorist funders.

Holding Iran’s central bank, Markazi, and two other banks, Melli and Saderat, which have branches around the world, accountable for Iran’s nefarious deeds bankrolling terrorists is an important first. Moving forward, our nation must continue using legal avenues to tie the hands of those with American blood on them.

Jonathan Missner is managing partner at Stein Mitchell Beato & Missner, a Washington-based international law firm that just won a historic court ruling against Iranian state sponsors of terror marking the first time that banks in Iran are being held responsible for the murder of an American citizen by a foreign terrorist organization.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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