The FBI is nearing the end of its investigation of the July 4 shooting at Los Angeles International Airport and has acknowledged that the attack may have been an act of terrorism.
The attack at the El Al check-in counter claimed the lives of two American Israelis, Victoria Hen and Yaacov Aminov. Both were gunned down by Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, an Egyptian national.
From the beginning, FBI spokesmen and Israeli officials have been at odds over how to label the shooting and Hadayet's motives.
Yuval Rotem, Israel's consul-general in Los Angeles, immediately asserted that "from the way the attack was conducted, the way the gunman skipped dozens of other foreign airlines, our experience tells us it is terrorism."
The FBI took a more cautious approach, initially describing the shooting as an "isolated incident." At a news conference the day after the shooting, FBI Special Agent Richard Garcia said that he was looking into Hadayet's possible motives. However, he added, "We are not ruling out a hate crime, we are not ruling out terrorism completely, and we are not ruling out that it may have been a random act of violence."
On Tuesday, New York Democratic Rep. Eliot L. Engel released a letter from a top FBI spokesman, after the congressman complained that he was "deeply troubled by the FBI handling of this case in its immediate aftermath."
In the response to Engel, John E. Collingwood, FBI assistant director of public and congressional affairs, speaking for FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, wrote, "Our Los Angeles office has opened this case as a terrorism investigation. Perhaps confusion resulted when our representatives declined to make an immediate public assessment that this tragic shooting was an act of terrorism, opting instead to explain that the FBI would collect more information and evidence prior to reaching a more definite conclusion.
"In any case," the letter continued, "terrorism has certainly not been ruled out in this case, and we do not intend this interim period of information gathering to imply that it has been. It is, in fact, being investigated as such."
Engel was not mollified by Collingwood's "confusion" explanation, saying, "I'm outraged at this flip-flop. They're almost like the gang that couldn't shoot straight."
Perhaps illustrating the gap between the legalistic pronouncements of law enforcement officials and the public perception of their words, FBI spokesmen Paul Bresson in Washington, D.C., and Matthew McLaughlin in Los Angeles insisted in separate phone interviews that terrorism had been considered a possible motive from day one. They said that an FBI terrorism task force had been on the job throughout.
McLaughlin said he expected that the investigation would be wrapped up in a week or so, and the results would then be made public.
In Los Angeles, Rotem said he welcomed the new development. Relatives of the two shooting victims concurred that the FBI "clarification" was long overdue.
"This was clearly a terrorist act," said Joseph Knoller, speaking for the Hen family. "The gunman, whether acting on his own or as part of a group, clearly wanted to kill Jews and Israelis. He acted against an entity of the state of Israel and on American soil."
Ofra Bachar, sister-in-law of the slain Aminov, said the airport attack was "obviously an act of terrorism." She said, "The gunman came to a specific terminal at a specific hour to kill. He couldn't have come for anything else."
Bachar, the sister of Aminov's widow, Anat, said the family buried Aminov in Israel and remained there for the 30-day mourning period before returning to their North Hollywood home. She said Anat Aminov was being sustained by her religious faith, but noted that the family, which includes five children ranging in age from 1 to 9, was in extremely difficult straits.
Yaacov Aminov, the 46-year-old owner of a jewelry distribution company, left behind no insurance policy or savings, Bachar said, and his widow has not yet had access to a memorial fund established after the killing.
"Anat was a homekeeper since her marriage. And now she has to handle everything by herself," Bachar said. "It is very difficult, and she is surviving only through the help of her family."