A marvellous story
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner has spent the past decade delivering a highly effective counterpunch to terrorist organisations across the globe by using her own brand of "lawfare".
First, she and her group of lawyers at the Israel Law Centre in Tel Aviv track down the terrorists’ financial pipelines, then they set about suing the banks, institutions and charitable fronts used to facilitate the flow of funds. In doing so, the 37-year-old Israeli attorney and mother of six has taken on some of the world’s biggest banks – the Arab Bank, the Bank of China, and American Express – and to date has recovered a whopping $120 million for the victims of terrorist attacks.
Darshan-Leitner has also won judgments worth more than $1 billion against groups including Hamas and Hezbollah. While the terrorists themselves do not pay up, Darshan-Leitner and her team have been able to close the spigot on many of their supply lines and reduce the risk of attacks on Israel by as much as 60 per cent, according to Israeli intelligence. There is real potential, she believes, for the victims of the two Bali bombings to launch civil actions against the terrorists and their backers. It is her mantra that “money is the oxygen of terrorism and if we can stop the flow of money, we can reduce terrorism”. On a recent tour in Australia, where she met senior politicians, Darshan-Leitner explained how she does it.
Q. Who are the main terrorist groups and states bankrolling terrorist attacks?
A. Hamas. PLO. Islamic Jihad. Hezbollah. And state regimes that support terror such as Iran, Syria, North Korea.
Q. Of course, it’s not the terrorists who you are forcing to pay up, but the banks handling their money.
A. Terrorist organisations don’t come to court. No, we’re going after bank accounts, shares, assets that are in the hands of third parties, and even grabbing houses. In cases against the banks, we’ve been very successful in sending a shockwave through the international financial systems. We have sent the message that if you provide financial services to terror groups or to the front charities that they hide behind, you could incur massive financial liability from the victims’ cases.
Q. You’ve funnelled the money raised from these cases to terrorist victims.
A. Nothing, it must be said, is ever going to bring a loved one killed in an attack back to life. However, I think that every case in which we have had an opportunity to actually recover funds for families who lost a breadwinner is really important. In some instances the families were in financial distress because the husband or wife had been killed. Taking funds away from the terrorists and getting them to the victims provides some measure of justice and compensation.
Q. You have taken two British banks, Lloyds and Barclays, to court, forcing them to shut down accounts of Islamic charities providing money to the families of suicide bombers. Some would argue that cutting off financial aid to these families is simple guilt by association, that you’re punishing innocent people.
A. They are not being punished. But you must stop the flow of money going to any connection to a terrorist organisation. If you give money to the family of a suicide bomber you actually encourage the next suicide bomber to carry out an attack because he knows his family will be supported from now until the end.
Q. But surely a terrorist organisation can simply bank its money through an Islamic financial institution and shift money around?
A. Yes, a terrorist group can still use an Islamic bank. The problem is where the money goes once it leaves the Islamic bank. You need an international bank to facilitate the money transaction. For instance, if a Palestinian bank wants to trade in euros or shekel you need a correspondent bank in Israel or Europe. No bank would be willing to do that. And the amount of money Hamas can smuggle through tunnels in suitcases is about a tenth of what can be wired through a bank.
Q. You have just launched a $5 million class action against former president Jimmy Carter and publishing company Simon & Schuster, alleging that his 2006 book, Palestine, Peace Not Apartheid, has an anti-Israel agenda. What do you find most objectionable about the book?
A. The problem with the book is not that it was anti-Israel; Carter is perfectly entitled to express his opinion. The cause of action arose because Carter and his publisher have been marketing the book as accurate and truthful, when in fact the book is replete with inaccuracies, misrepresentations, mistakes and lies. We sued under the consumer protection laws as it’s a fraud on the reading public.
Q. Some would see this as a clear-cut case of you trying to quash free speech.
A. We have repeatedly said that Carter is entirely free to express his opinion. Our suit is based upon the misrepresentations that Carter and his publisher have made to the public. They continue to insist the book is truthful and we claim it’s a fraudulent misrepresentation on the public. It has nothing to do with free speech. It has to do with false advertising and fraudulent commercial speech.
Q. Speaking of Carter, his presidency was haunted by the hostage crisis in Tehran. Was this the beginning of the struggle against radical Islam?
A. The Muslim Brotherhood, the same one we hear about in Egypt, has been working to overthrow Arab governments and establish a pan-Islamic region since the 1930s. The Iranian Revolution was one of their most successful achievements in that unrelenting struggle. The fact is that Carter’s administration completely failed to recognise the threat from extremist Islam and essentially allowed Khomeini and his followers to ride the coat tails of the Iranian democratic movement into absolute power.
Q. In Iran in 1979, radical Islamicists posed as democrats but then established a theocratic dictatorship. Do you think the Muslim Brotherhood pose the same threat in Egypt, given they won at most 20 per cent of the vote in the last election with members standing as Independents?
A. Twenty per cent may not look like a scary number, but no other opposition party in Egypt is as well organised and well funded as the Muslim Brotherhood. If an election were held today, the Muslim Brotherhood would win a lot more than 20 per cent of the vote. The only hope is that the new leaders will not be worse than Mubarak. If the Muslim Brotherhood take over, it will be bad not just for Egypt but the world.
Q. In 2008, you helped launch a campaign to save the life of a Palestinian man accused of helping Israeli intelligence. What happened to him?
A. The Palestinian Authority hunts down anyone it suspects of providing the Israeli security services with information about terrorist organisations. Sometimes the terror groups just execute the suspects in the streets. In this case they arrested the man, gave him a 15-minute trial and sentenced him to death. We mounted an international campaign in the media to save his life. We demanded that the Palestinians not carry out the execution and that he be provided a fair trial. In the end we saved him – but he received a life sentence.
Q. A PM chosen by Hezbollah governs in Lebanon. In Iraq, radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is throwing his political weight around. Palestinians voted in Hamas. In terms of the spread of radical Islam, it’s a fairly bleak picture is it not?
A. It is. We do have a fear of the future in Israel. The increased strength of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the revolution in Egypt, the extreme mullahs in Iran, the uncertainty in Iraq and the instability in Jordan now. It all puts Israel into a very uncomfortable position.
Q. Israel is a tiny country of 7.5 million surrounded by giants – Iran (73 million), Egypt (82 million), Saudi Arabia (26 million), Syria (21 million). Do you see the country becoming increasingly besieged in the years ahead?
A. I am a daughter of generations and generations of Jews. We have gone through crises, pogroms, disasters and holocausts since the beginning of creation. We have survived 5000 years to date and we’ll survive another 5000 years.
Q. Do you see any lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians in the decades to come?
A. The Palestinians are not preparing their citizens to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state. Their leaders and media are still inciting their people against Israel on a daily basis. Issues to which they are not willing to compromise include the status of Jerusalem and the insistence on having an armed military force. Until the Palestinians are willing to make real concessions, there can be no enduring peace.