The Department of Justice is for the first time charging a member of Hamas for crimes resulting in the death of American citizens.
On Tuesday, the department made public charges filed against Ahlam Aref Ahmad Al-Tamimi for her role in the 2001 bombing of a Sbarro pizza restaurant in Jerusalem. Fifteen civilians, including seven children and a pregnant woman, were killed in the attack. Two were U.S. nationals, and four Americans were among the approximately 122 injured.
“Al-Tamimi is an unrepentant terrorist who admitted to her role in a deadly terrorist bombing that injured and killed numerous innocent victims,” Acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security Mary McCord said Tuesday. “The charges unsealed today serve as a reminder that when terrorists target Americans anywhere in the world, we will never forget – and we will continue to seek to ensure that they are held accountable.”
According to the Justice Department, Tamimi was living in the West Bank in the summer of 2001 and agreed to carry out terrorist attacks for Hamas, the Palestinian organization which the U.S. and Israel recognize as a terrorist group. She drove a suicide bomber to Sbarro on Aug. 9, 2001 and instructed him to detonate an explosive device inside a guitar inside the restaurant or elsewhere to cause maximum casualties.
Tamimi pleaded guilty in an Israeli court in 2003, and did not express remorse for her role. “I’m not sorry for what I did. I will get out of prison and I refuse to recognize Israel’s existence,” she told Israeli reporters in 2006.
She was given 16 life sentences but only served eight years before being released as part of the prison swap between Israel and Hamas in 2011. Israel turned over 1,027 Palestinians in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been captured by Palestinian militants in 2006.
The swap was extremely controversial in Israel, and particularly difficult for families of those killed in the Sbarro attack. Frimet Roth’s 15-year-old daughter Malka died in the bombing.
“With the decision to free the terrorists, Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, a savvy politician to the core, conveys to us his disdain for the lives of ordinary citizens like my Malka,” Roth told McClatchy in 2011 just before the prisoner swap took place. “A government that seeks the defeat of the terrorists must refuse to release convicted terrorists from prisons.”
Families of victims can appeal to Israeli court to have those involved in their loved ones’ deaths excluded from prisoner swaps, but no such request had ever been granted before the Shalit exchange.
It wasn’t immediately clear why the Department of Justice chose Tuesday to unseal the criminal complaint, which had originally been filed July 15, 2013. The department did not respond to a request for comment regarding the timing of the announcement.
According to the Jerusalem Post, Justice Department prosecutors recently traveled to Israel to meet with American families of attack victims to promote the case.
Tamimi, who is currently a television host in Jordan, is unlikely to face trial in the U.S. The two countries are strong allies, but Jordan does not extradite its citizens. Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security, said the U.S. could choose to put pressure on the country, but doing so would be politically difficult.
“It’s hard for us to make it a huge priority issue if the Israelis released her,” Goldenberg said.
The 2013 complaint was filed just days before the latest round of U.S.-led Middle East peace negotiations began. But it is unlikely that the decision to seal it was related to the diplomatic effort, said Goldenberg, who was then the chief of staff for the State Department’s special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
“It probably did happen for a reason, but I wouldn’t expect it to be a political reason,” Goldenberg said. “If it was a political decision at that time to keep it sealed, it would have come across our radar. I would have seen it.”
That round of peace negotiations, led by former Secretary of State John Kerry, collapsed in spring of 2014. President Donald Trump has said Middle East peace is a priority for his administration.
Trump has also placed emphasis on bringing people who kill Americans to justice and stopping terrorist attacks abroad and in the U.S.
“There’s a much greater sense now than under the previous administration to take much more strongly and to act on cases of people killing Americans,” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center. “I don’t believe in coincidences. There are clearly special circumstances that have created a kind of trail to this announcement.”