Follow the blood money: Exposing the secret US banking operations that help fund suicide bombers
Editor's note: This story by Adam Penenberg was first published on Pando in 2014. In March 2015 it was nominated for a Deadline Club award.
The day before he blew himself up, Bassam Jamal Darwish al-Takruri wore a freshly ironed white shirt, blazer, and shiny shoes, as if he were on his way to a job interview. As he was about to leave home for the last time, his father gave him 10 shekels in pocket money, apparently unaware of his son’s plans.
Takruri, who lived in Hebron, was 18, boyish, thin, and studious -- he dreamed of becoming an engineer -- with doleful eyes, scratchy eyebrows, and a high, arcing forehead. He traveled to a secret location to record a video announcing his intent to become a “martyr” and offering glory to Allah. “My dear father, my affectionate mother, my dear brothers and sisters, do not say we lost that who is gone,” he said. “If immortality means loss, it is better that you lose me.” He called his death “a cheap price” to pay “for the sake of Allah and Islam,” and begged his family to view it as a day of celebration.
Afterward Takruri met his handler, an operative for Hamas, in Abu Dis, a town bordering Jerusalem and governed by the Palestinian National Authority. It was brushing up against 5 p.m. on May 17, 2003, during the Second Palestinian Intifada, a period of intensified Israeli-Palestinian conflict that had begun two and a half years earlier. The two traveled by taxi four miles north to the handler’s home in Shuafat, where Takruri showed him the explosives vest stowed in his bag. To avoid a last minute change of heart, Takruri, like many suicide bombers, spent the last night of his life away from his family.
At 4 a.m. Takruri and his handler awoke and worked together to fasten a specially designed vest around the bomber’s body. Inside were four separate cylinders, each packed with ball bearings and screws, designed as a pipe bomb, weighing approximately 15 pounds. The explosives were formulated from common household products, a dangerous, unstable mix of acetone, hydrogen peroxide, and hydrochloride acid, a recipe found on the Internet.
They hooked up an activation switch shaped like a doorbell and the size of two matchbooks. Takruri secreted the weapon under clothes the handler had purchased for the occasion: ritual four-cornered undergarment with fringes, black pants, white shirt, long black coat, skullcap, and a Star of David chain, an outfit he figured would be worn by ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews.
The two went on their way, the handler following 25 yards behind to avoid the appearance they were together. They arrived at Jerusalem’s French Hill Junction at 5:25 am, where the handler pointed to the bus stop, slipped Takruri a one-way prepaid ticket, and told him to get on the first bus that came along and ride it to the center of town. There he should detonate the makeshift bomb for maximum carnage.
The handler chose the location with care. A member of Hamas since 1999, he had only recently enlisted in the military faction of the terrorist organization with the express purpose of executing attacks. Within Hamas he was viewed as a valuable asset, since he possessed an Israeli identity document and knew his way around Jerusalem’s serpentine back alleys. Ordered to gather intelligence on members of the Knesset and other senior government officials, he sought target-rich locations where Hamas operatives could kidnap Israeli soldiers, as well as point out buses teeming with passengers. When he reported that French Hill Junction was an ideal place for a suicide attack, a Hamas activist gave him money, and a week later he had instructions to meet Takruri, who had already been given the bomb.
At the bus stop Takruri did his best to blend in.
Steve Averbach with his two youngest boys.
Steve Averbach, a 37-year-old American-born Israeli, boarded bus no. 6 and sat in the front seat, his back to the driver. His wife and two young sons were still asleep when he left the house to head to work. It was Sunday, the start of the work week. As the locals say, “The Monday morning blues start on Sunday.”
Averbach, a Tel Aviv resident, had lived in Israel for more than half his life. He first visited when he was 16, and two years later returned to join the army, where he served in the elite Golani unit, seeing action in Lebanon and Gaza. He worked in the Jerusalem Police Department's anti-terrorism unit, then left for a job as a weapons instructor, where he trained police officers, security firms, and private citizens. His skill with weaponry had earned him the nickname “Steve Guns.”
The bus, operated by a company called Egged, was half full with 35 of the kind of passengers who needed to catch public transportation at 5:45 in the morning – a postal worker, a parking lot guard, a janitor, a woman who helped prepare meals in a hospital, a man who restocked shelves in a supermarket.
The driver switched on the engine, and the bus pulled out to begin its route. It hadn't traveled far when the driver noticed the Orthodox Jew dressed in traditional clothes, chasing after. The bus stopped to allow the straggling passenger to board. This was unusual, thought Averbach, who had ridden the no. 6 regularly since his motorcycle license was suspended. Drivers almost never picked up passengers away from the bus stop.
Averbach's suspicions thickened when Takruri stepped on board. Averbach noted this particular Orthodox Jew was clean-shaven and had on wing-tipped shoes. A Star of David hung around his neck, a piece of jewelry a member of that sect wouldn't wear. There was a bulge under the man's jacket and in his right hand he clutched what looked to Averbach like a trigger mechanism.
In training, Averbach had been timed drawing his weapon in .85 of a second. But Takruri already had his hand on the trigger. "Steve Guns" was still in mid-turn when Takruri, realizing he'd been made, squeezed the detonator.
There was a searing flash followed by an explosion. Averbach was heaved toward the back of the bus. The force was so great the vehicle was tossed to the side of the road until it rolled to a stop, its front section a grotesque skeleton, glass shattered, metal and plastic twisted.
Amid the smoke and screaming, panicking passengers, Averbach lay helpless, gasping for air and partially blinded, his gun still in his hand. He could see guts and body parts strewn about, blood soaking the floor.
Several minutes later two rescue workers arrived to drag survivors off the mangled bus. During his time as a policeman and member of the anti-terror squad, Averbach had been on the scene of four or five bus bombings. He knew the protocol. Not wanting to risk more casualties, Averbach told a border patrol officer about his loaded gun. The officer unclasped Averbach’s fingers from the weapon, cleared, and safed it.
Outside, a team had already began scouring the surrounding area, picking up bits of flesh so they could be given proper burial, as Averbach was carried to a waiting ambulance. He couldn't feel his arms or legs. One of his final thoughts, before paramedics intubated him, was that he hoped his paralysis would be temporary.
Then Steve Averbach lost consciousness.
Takruri’s suicide video (in Arabic). [English translation here.]A Very Banal Evil
It was several weeks after the bus bombing, which killed six and injured 20, when New York attorney Gary Osen heard from a friend about Steve Averbach.
“The guy’s in very bad shape,” the friend told Osen, “and I know you’re interested in this subject.”
Indeed he was, but Osen, now 45, was no ambulance chaser. As a lawyer, he had carved out a unique specialty, performing Holocaust restitution work on behalf of Jews whose property had been forcibly confiscated by the Nazis and communists. With his father, whose firm he joined straight out of George Washington Law School, Osen had helped litigate a number of high-profile cases. One, the Wertheim case, involved a large percentage of property in downtown Berlin, including the land above Hitler’s bunker.
What struck Osen was how organized the whole process was: the banal evil of the international cash-for-martyrdom industry.
Like many Americans, Osen had been deeply affected by 9/11. Four days after the attacks on the World Trade Centers, Osen, who lived in suburban New Jersey, learned that a neighbor had been killed. Hagai Shefi, who ran a small technology startup, had arrived early to set up a PowerPoint demonstration at a conference being held in Windows on the World when the first plane hit the North Tower. Aware that he was about to die, Shefi left his wife a final voice message.
When Osen checked on the family, he found Shefi’s wife, who was raising two small children, shattered. Osen said what he had said a thousand times before: “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” He meant it as a platitude, expecting the typical answer: "Thanks, I'll let you know."
The widow deviated from the script. “Yes," she replied, "can you handle everything?” Osen said that he would.
Working pro bono, Osen handled the funeral arrangements, estate matters, and raked through paperwork to get Mrs. Shefi money to which she was entitled. In the process he got to know her young son, who begged Osen to take him to Home Depot so they could purchase parts to rebuild his dead father. One day, Mrs. Shefi asked Osen about rumored lawsuits against the Saudis accused of assisting the 9/11 attacks. Osen promised to look into it.
Osen's research on behalf of Mrs Shefi didn't lead to a case being brought, but it did lead him to focus on what the Saudis and others were doing to fund and support terror attacks against Israel. Al-Qaida’s financing was largely clandestine -- good luck to any lawyers trying to uncover it -- but other terror organizations, he discovered, weren't nearly as secretive. Hamas, which had claimed responsibility through its Izzedine al Qassam military wing for the blast that injured Averbach, was particularly brazen. [See here for the statement claiming responsibility, or here for an English translation.]
In 2002, a rash of stories had hit the news about the Saudi government and Iraq's Saddam Hussein paying the families of suicide bombers. According to reports, Hussein awarded families of bombers up to $25,000, while the Saudis held telethons to raise additional funds. Those stories, Osen discovered, didn't even tell the half of it.
The money paid to each family was like a death and dismemberment insurance policy for suicide bombers. The dollars -- and dollars were the currency of choice -- came from a variety of sources: rogue nations like Iraq and Iran, terror organizations Hamas and Hezbollah, and Muslim charities such as The Holy Land Foundation.
At the high end, a family might receive $20,000 from the Iraqis, $5,000 from a Saudi charity, $5,000 from Hezbollah, and other payments, usually in installments, that came through Hamas from its network of charities, mosques, and social welfare organizations. In a place where the yearly income for a family of six was $1,500, blood relatives could end up with more than 20 times that, or as much as $40,000. These payments functioned as a reward and incentive for suicide bombers. They also assisted the families when the Israeli Army inevitably arrived with bulldozers to destroy bombers’ homes.
What struck Osen was how organized the whole process was: the banal evil of the international cash-for-martyrdom industry. After a suicide attack, a caseworker from one of Hamas's social welfare institutions would sit down with family members and take down information on a standard set of forms. The documents resembled the kind of forms a mortgage applicant might fill out, except with a cover page that translates into something like “The Martyrs Receive Reward from their Lord, They and Their Light." The caseworker recorded the applicant's closest relatives, family income, number of dependents, whether they were particularly in need of money, as well as banking and contact information, including cell phone numbers and home address.
Gary Osen has been battling Arab Bank for a decade.
The paperwork also had a space for details of the decedent’s death. For example, under the “social workers notes on the family’s status” in an application for Mahmud Muhammad Ahmad Abu Hunud, a Hamas commander who the Israeli government claims planned dozens of terror attacks and was assassinated on November 23, 2001, the caseworker had written:
Family economic situation is good, and they are a contented, strong family.
Martyr’s occupation: Wanted by authorities, no employment
It listed the “date of martyrdom,” a proxy ID number, a phone number, and the “means of martyrdom”: Attack from an Apache helicopter, and other details. May God have mercy on the heroic leader and bring him into Paradise.
Suicide bombers with the wherewithal to plan ahead could even opt for their own “Martyr Kit,” a package containing all the necessary forms and instructions, an account card from the Arab Bank, and an official death certificate issued by the Palestinian Authority.
Newspaper ads in Al-Hayat, al-Jadida, a Palestinian newspaper, were used to notify beneficiaries who hadn’t claimed their money to head down to their local branch of the Arab Bank or risk missing out on their payments. In an advertisement from the fall of 2002, the “Center for Social and Psychological Research of Palestinian Casualties” announced, “in coordination and cooperation with the Secretariat of the Saudi Committee for Al-Quds Intifada” – the second intifada in Jerusalem – that “families of martyrs whose names are listed herein” should “go to a branch of the Arab Bank in their place of residence to receive the 10th payment offered by the Saudi Committee in the amount of US $5,316.06 for each family.” The advertisement made it known that the payment, for a total of $1,594,980, was earmarked for 300 families. [See the Al-Hayat ad here and the Saudi Committee Al-Quds ad here.]
Hamas also relied heavily on the Arab Bank for its banking needs. On the group’s website was a "donate" button that included an Arab Bank account number to a branch in Lebanon. Osen alleges in a court document that key members of the group -- from its supreme leader down to its operatives -- maintained accounts there, with the bank distributing more than $3.7 million to known leaders of Hamas and their wives from 2000 to 2002. After the US government designated Hamas a foreign terrorist organization in 1997, the bank processed some $27.5 million that went to 12 Hamas Institutions between 2000 and 2004, and maintained at least 61 accounts for organizations on Israel's Terrorism Blacklist between 2005 and 2008.
It appeared Arab Bank was facilitating massive amounts of terror financing from Madison Avenue, right under the noses of federal regulators and the US government.
What Osen found particularly galling was that much of the money that flowed to these families and groups passed through New York, where the Arab Bank’s dollar-denominated transactions were cleared. It appeared Arab Bank was facilitating massive amounts of terror financing from Madison Avenue, right under the noses of federal regulators and the US government.
Shortly after the bombing of bus no. 6 a representative from “The Organization of Martyr Families” telephoned Bassam Takruri's parents. He told Takruri’s mother to open an account at the Arab Bank so the family could receive its reward. Soon after the account was open, the first $200 arrived by direct transfer, a process repeated every month for a year. When, a few weeks after the attack, Israeli bulldozers razed the family's home to the ground, they moved into an apartment paid for by the group, a portrait of their martyr son hanging over the sofa.
It never occurred to Takruri’s father not to accept the funds or turn down the offer of a place to live.
“We needed the money,” he told Der Spiegel. “We suddenly no longer had a house.”
Bassam Takruri dreamed of becoming an engineer.
Now that Osen understood how the money flowed, he needed a theory of liability that would enable him to bring suit against the bank. It didn’t take him long to settle on the US Anti-terrorism Act, which Congress passed into law shortly after the events of September 11, 2001. It made it possible for the families or heirs of an American injured by an act of terrorism to sue in any appropriate district court of the United States and recover “threefold the damages he or she sustains and the cost of the suit, including attorney’s fees.” One key aspect of the Act deals with terror financing. Osen believed that the bank violated the law by soliciting, collecting, transmitting, disbursing, and providing the financial resources that allowed Hamas and its affiliated organizations to flourish and engage in a campaign of terror.
In the past, American courts awarded billions of dollars in damages against Iran for sponsoring terrorist groups, but victims have had difficulty collecting because the US State and Justice departments resisted seizing foreign government assets. Because of a lack of diplomatic relations, Iran had few assets in America, and what it had were embassies and the like -- nothing that could be seized. Osen was sure a judgment against a foreign bank, especially one with assets in the United States, would reap different results. You couldn't alter the nation of Iran's behavior by suing it, but you could deter commercial entities from aiding terrorism by holding them accountable and hitting them on their bottom lines.
Still, it was a long shot. Then again, Osen’s entire career had been predicated on long shots. He used to joke to his father that they were the St. Jude of law firms because of their penchant for lost causes -- cases that were complicated and expensive to litigate. They worked on contingency and in areas that were unconventional, yet somehow it worked out often enough that they kept on going.
Armed with the evidence and secure in the belief that the law was on his side, Osen booked a ticket to Israel to meet Steve Averbach.
Pain and Suffering
Steve Averbach a few days after the suicide bombing attack on bus no 6.
Steve Averbach should not have survived the bomb blast that paralyzed him. In the explosion, shrapnel peppered his body and face, including a nail that rammed into his skull above his left eye. Glass punctured his lung. But his main injury, the one that guaranteed he would never walk again, was caused by a ball bearing that pierced the right side of his neck, lodging against his spinal cord just above the cervical three vertebrae.
Doctors at the intensive care unit of Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem kept Averbach in an induced coma for several weeks so his body could begin healing. In one surgery they removed shrapnel from his body and the ball bearing from his spine. When he had trouble breathing they performed a tracheotomy; when he couldn’t eat they inserted a feeding tube in his stomach; and there were catheters to pee and shit for him. It wasn’t until Averbach’s pain medications were reduced and the fog lifted that he learned that his paralysis was permanent. The only feeling he experienced was pain, a deep, burning sensation that drove him wild until the meds kicked in.
Before the attack, Averbach had been a proud, street-brawly Zionist who worked hard and partied harder. He met his second wife, Julie, at a bar in Jerusalem where she was a waitress. It was love at first sight. He hadn’t been a regular but started dropping in every chance he got. She was immediately attracted to him, the ex-cop with massive, muscular arms. He was strong, a leader, the kind of man others looked up to.
Now he couldn’t scratch an itch, turn over in his bed, or take a walk. He was a father, and no one could take that away from him, but what kind of father could a paralyzed man be? He couldn’t play with his sons, teach them to ride bicycles or throw a Frisbee, take them to the beach, or hug them. He couldn’t provide for his family. He couldn’t protect or take care of them.
In Israel he was hailed as a hero. The Minister of Internal Security commended him for his “great bravery.” By forcing Takruri to detonate the bomb before the bus arrived in the town center to pick up more passengers, Averbach had saved dozens of lives. But Averbach didn’t see it that way. He was no hero. He simply had no choice. If he had done nothing, even if it meant walking away without a scratch, he wouldn't have been able to live with himself. He once said it would have been like a doctor who witnesses a car crash and doesn't stop to help. If he had to do it all over again, he wouldn’t change a thing, except maybe to squeeze off a few shots from his gun a split second sooner.
After five weeks in the ICU, Averbach was moved to a hospital in Tel Aviv, into a rehab unit for terror victims. He would stay in a shared room for more than a year, undergoing intensive rehabilitation and taking some 40 pills a day. He fell into a deep depression, begging doctors to unplug him from the life support machines. His wife quit her job as an accountant to take care of her broken husband full time and battle with insurance companies and social services, which were short on funds due to the sheer number of terrorism victims.
He was no hero. He simply had no choice.
Gary Osen's first visit to Averbach came six months after the attack. The ward was not for the squeamish, with terror victims and soldiers with missing limbs -- paraplegics, quadriplegics, people whose lives changed in an instant. Social conventions did not apply. Normal human introductions, where you shook someone’s hand, were unavailable. Osen immobilized himself, keeping his hands still so as to not draw attention to them.
He told Averbach he wasn’t there to discuss an accident case. What he had in mind was much bigger. He planned to go after the whole financing apparatus. Osen laid out his research and theories: the key, he said, was to follow the money.
Averbach was encouraging. Even bed-bound he was up for a fight. But Osen could tell he wasn't emotionally invested. He was, necessarily, focused on the short term. His life was dictated by his next breath. Even if Osen somehow prevailed Averbach knew he probably wouldn’t be around to see it.
Osen told him he didn’t have to decide right away. “Give it some thought,” he said.
But Averbach had already made up his mind, reasoning that he had nothing to lose. He was the first to join Osen’s suit, transforming the lawyer’s self-described “abstract,” “quixotic” quest into a real case with a real client who had been grievously injured -- although it took a while for Osen to get Averbach's thumbprint on a retention letter. In the meantime, Osen located other Americans whose lives had been shattered by terror attacks in Israel, with each new case bringing with it a new set of tragedies.
There was Courtney Linde, whose husband, John Linde Jr., a former marine jumpmaster had taken a job with DynCorp as a private diplomatic security specialist. He did it because he needed better healthcare coverage for his young wife, who had been diagnosed with bone cancer. Linde was one of three American security personnel killed on October 15, 2003 by a roadside bomb while escorting a US diplomatic convoy in the Gaza Strip. Matanya and Chana Nathansen were injured in a grisly attack in Jerusalem that killed their 2-year-old daughter, Tehila, who was sitting on her mother's lap when the bus blew up. Howard Goldstein was in Israel for his son's wedding, driving on Route 60 with his parents and wife when two men fired on the car, instantly killing him and severely wounding everyone else. Jacob (Koby) Mandell, an eighth grader from Tekoa, Israel, skipped school to go hiking with a friend when they were attacked with rocks and murdered, their bodies mutilated. A Palestinian resistance splinter group claimed responsibility.
For his clients, Osen says, it wasn't about money. "They did it and do it -- and Steve did it -- because it gave them an opportunity to not be victims.”
Arab Bank in Jerusalem
In July 2004, Osen filed the first civil lawsuit against the Arab Bank on behalf of American terror victims under the Anti-Terrorism Act, seeking to hold it liable for deaths and severe injuries resulting from acts of terrorism perpetrated by Palestinian terrorist groups, namely Hamas, between 2000 and 2004.
Linde v. Arab Bank started with six families. The case was captioned as Linde v Arab Bank and not Averbach v Arab Bank because Averbach's condition was too precarious that first year, and Osen was wary of reporters and others descending on his client.
He expected litigation to take time, and it has. A decade later and the number of plaintiffs Osen represents has swelled to 235, the blood relatives and heirs of more than 50 victims. Two other lawsuits filed after Osen's have been merged with his and represent another 250 plaintiffs. Their stories are no less tragic, like another of Osen's clients. Alan and Shirlee Hayman’s newly married and pregnant daughter, Shoshana Greenbaum, a schoolteacher, was incinerated in the bombing of Sbarro’s Pizza in downtown Jerusalem in August 2001. Fifteen others, including seven children, also died, and 130 were injured.
“The parents lost their only child and their only grandchild in utero,” Osen says. “This case doesn’t bring her back. Their only child is gone."
Osen and his colleagues continue to fight, and with the Arab Bank almost out of appeals and challenges, and barring a last minute reprieve for the bank by the US Supreme Court, Osen’s clients may soon finally have their day in court.
Map of Hamas bombings in Israel: 2001 - 2004.
Arab Bank’s main defense strategy, it seems, has been to stonewall. Early in litigation, in 2005, Osen issued a request for discovery, asking that the Bank turn over key documents related to organizations designated by the United States government as “foreign terrorist organizations,” as well as any individuals and entities allegedly tied to them, including account numbers and bank statements connected to known members of Hamas.
In response, Arab Bank furnished about 200,000 bank records, which added to others the Israeli Defense Force seized in Lebanon, or were made public by the US Justice Department during its successful prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation in 2008. But the bank has refused to turn over many others -- including emails that could show whether bank executives were aware that money was flowing through the bank to known terrorists, claiming it would violate bank secrecy laws in Jordan, where it is based, the Palestinian territories, and elsewhere.
A pattern emerged. Plaintiffs’ attorneys requested more documents. The bank refused. A judge compelled the bank to provide these documents. The bank appealed. The bank lost. Plaintiffs’ attorneys modified their requests and the court ordered the bank to comply. The bank refused. After more than two years of this, US District Judge Nina Gershon sanctioned the bank for disobeying discovery orders.
Then in 2010 she ruled, based on the Bank's failure to produce the required documents, that she would instruct the jury that it could – but was not required to – conclude that Arab Bank “provided financial services to foreign terrorist organizations” and did so “knowingly and purposefully.” In the meantime, Judge Gershon ordered the bank to pay $1.3 million in plaintiffs’ legal bills, which is held in escrow.
A trial date was set but postponed when the bank appealed to the 2nd Circuit Court. It lost. Recently, the Bank filed a writ of certiorari, asking the US Supreme Court to review the 2nd Circuit’s refusal to question the trial courts sanctions order. A ruling is expected shortly, but it would be highly unusual for the Supreme Court to overturn such an order. These kind of "interlocutory appeals" are almost never granted, since federal courts tend to give judges wide latitude and allow those who lose to appeal any final verdict.
To get the bank's side of the story, I emailed its corporate communications department in Jordan several times until I was finally contacted by a spokesperson with Washington, DC-based CLS Strategies, which provides communications support to the Bank and its New York-based legal team.
The spokesperson claimed Arab Bank has acted in good faith and that the only documents the bank has not turned over would cause it to run afoul of privacy laws in Jordan and the Palestinian Territories, where Osen says most of the documents are stored. He pointed out that an Israeli bank also opposed efforts to be deposed in an American civil suit, arguing it was exempt due to bank secrecy. (The judge disagreed.) The only documents the Bank did not produce are those where courts or governments did not waive privacy requirements.
"There's no lower form of humanity than a guy in a suit making money off a teenager detonating a bomb on a bus, then slithering home to watch CNN."
He emphasized that the government of Jordan, as well as the governor of the Palestine Monetary Authority, supported by his prime minister, have filed amicus briefs in support of the bank, arguing that if people do not have confidence in privacy laws, banking and commerce could be driven underground, complicating efforts to stop illegal activity, including terrorism.
Finally, he emailed me a copy of a letter from the Israel Defense Force, which he claimed found no evidence that the bank or its officials were involved in supporting terrorist activities. He emphasized that the IDF letter was an important part of Arab Bank's defense and hoped I would reference it in my story.
What he failed to provide, however, was the IDF's second, "clarifying," letter, which contradicts some of the spokesperson's assertions. The IDF sent it after objecting to the way the Arab Bank's legal team was mischaracterizing the original letter, which the IDF lawyer who wrote it claimed "could lead to a misunderstanding."
In February 2004, the IDF seized millions of dollars of assets from the Arab Bank from accounts that belonged to individuals and organizations that "have committed a criminal offense that involves violence or terror." The letter goes on to say that the bank was not the intended target of the IDF's actions, that it did not take a stand on whether the bank or its employees have been involved in terrorism, nor did it rule out future action against Arab Bank.
In addition, Arab Bank already violated privacy laws when it disclosed account records to the US Department of Justice in a criminal case against the Holy Land Foundation. And about half the records plaintiff attorneys have requested are physically located in the Gaza Strip, which is run by Hamas, the very foreign terrorist organization whose financial records they've been trying to access.
Certainly, the bank's hands are not squeaky clean. In that Holy Land Foundation case, the New York branch of Arab Bank paid a $24 million civil penalty in 2005 for failing to identify and report suspicious transactions involving possible support of terrorism. “It is vitally important that banks have effective anti-money laundering programs in place to ensure that the financial system is not used to facilitate terrorism or criminal activity,” Comptroller of the Currency John C. Dugan said. In agreeing to pay the fine, the bank admitted no wrongdoing.
Tab Turner won a $131 million verdict v. Ford.
In other lawsuits, Arab Bank has scored some successes. In November 2012, a federal judge in Brooklyn threw out a case against the bank that was also brought under the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act. The case involved a man with dual US-Israel nationality injured by sniper fire originating in Gaza. The judge wrote: “Moral blame should only follow if the harm caused by providing bank services to terrorists is foreseeable,” which is a bit like saying you shouldn’t be held responsible for providing arms to a terrorist, since you couldn’t foresee he would actually use them. Osen was one of the lawyers on that case, too, and claims the judge’s ruling rewarded the bank for refusing to produce key documents in discovery.
Last year, in a separate case, Arab Bank prevailed when a federal court dismissed a lawsuit seeking hundreds of millions of dollars that was brought by plaintiffs who were not U.S. citizens. Their argument hinged on an obscure late 18th century anti-piracy law, the Alien Tort Statute, which offered redress for foreigners filing civil claims in American courts against international companies that were accused of violating US law.
[Read Arab Bank's full statement to Pando here.]
Called To Account
Osen remains confident that Linde v Arab Bank won't meet a similar fate. After all, for decades, the tobacco companies won every lawsuit – until they lost one and the floodgates were opened. He says he expects the Supreme Court to weigh in by June, and a trial to commence in Brooklyn shortly after.
To assist, Osen brought in Tab Turner, a one-man litigation machine from North Little Rock, AR, best known for sparring with the automobile industry. Turner is one of the principal attorneys who will argue the case in court. [Disclosure: I wrote a book on Turner and his battle with Ford over the safety of the Explorer, which Michael Douglas optioned as a movie.] Turner, who in 2010 won a huge $131 million jury verdict against Ford in an Explorer rollover trial involving a top New York Mets prospect, has fronted, along with Osen and two other law firms, a large chunk of the expenses, which, to date, tally several million dollars.
That's how it works in high-stakes litigation. You have to pay to play, investing in a case like you were a venture capitalist helping to finance a long-shot startup. In exchange, you get a piece of the action if the case settles or your side wins in court. Turner, who has taken part in negotiations with Arab Bank that were overseen by a mediator, has been asking for $2 billion to settle. The price could get a lot higher if it goes before a jury, he points out, since the Anti-Terrorism Act provides for a tripling of damages.
He doesn't mince words when characterizing Arab Bank executives. Turner calls them "criminals," "roaches" who "move around in the dark of night, inciting terrorism for profit. There's no lower form of humanity than a guy in a suit making money off a teenager detonating a bomb on a bus, then slithering home to watch CNN."
Arab Bank isn't the only bank in lawyers' crosshairs. Osen has levied lawsuits against Crédit Lyonnais, and NatWest, which he also accuses of maintaining accounts tied to Hamas, and others have filed suit against Bank of China and Lebanese Canadian Bank, which allegedly used an account in New York City to transfer millions to the financing arm of another terrorist group, Hezbollah.
Whatever the outcome of the Arab Bank lawsuit it comes too late for Steve Averbach. In his final years, the man hailed as a "Hero," "Israel's Man of Courage," and "Man of Spiritual Steel" struggled with respiratory problems and was in and out of the hospital. Yet he still managed to act as an advocate for Israelis ravaged by terror attacks -- traveling, giving speeches, and raising money for Tikvot, an Israeli non-profit that uses sports to help rehabilitate terror victims and their families.
Averbach died in his sleep at his home in Tel Aviv on June 3, 2010. He was 44.
[Feature photo -- Israeli police inspect the remains of bus number 6 in Jerusalem after a suicide bombing on May 18, 2003: Yossi Zamir/Reuters. Photos of Steve Averbach: courtesy of Averbach Family. Photo of Gary Osen: Gary Osen. Photo of Tab Turner: Tab Turner. Photo of Bassam Takruri: Unknown. Photo of Arab Bank: Wikimedia]