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Monday, December 11, 2023 | Back issues
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Court Revives Suit Over 1985 Terrorist Attack

(CN) - Syria and Libya may be liable for training and supporting the gunmen behind the 1985 terrorist attack at Vienna's international airport, the D.C. Circuit ruled.

On Dec. 27, 1985, members of a militant Palestinian splinter group called the Abu Nidal Organization attacked flight terminals in Rome and Vienna. The Abu Nidal Organization, which split from Yasser Arafat's Fatah, rejects any peaceful settlement with Israel.

Minutes after the gunmen in Rome attacked an Israeli airline counter, the other group in Vienna attacked a check-in line for a flight to Tel-Aviv. In total, 16 people were killed and more than 100 wounded.

Over two decades later, Peter Knowland, who was injured in the Vienna attack, sued Syria, Libya and a number of foreign organizations that he claimed had supported the terrorist attacks.

He claimed both attacks were part of a single "plan to conduct terrorist attacks at airports and tourist attractions frequented by Americans and Israelis," and that the gunmen trained together at Syrian-sponsored training camps located in Lebanon.

A federal judge in Washington dismissed Knowland's complaint as untimely, but the D.C. Circuit reversed Friday.

Because Knowland filed his case so late, "his only hope of obtaining judicial relief depends on his ability to invoke the 'related action' provision," Judge Janice Brown wrote for a three-member panel. "According to Knowland, his suit is related to Estate of Buonocore v. Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, a suit against many of the same defendants for their alleged support of the Rome attack. It is undisputed that Buonocore was timely filed and that Knowland's suit would be timely filed under § 1083(c)(3) if Buonocore is in fact a related action."

In finding that the attacks in Vienna and Rome unrelated, the lower court used "overly formulaic" analyses, according to the eight-page opinion.

"Was the American landing at Utah beach part of the same 'incident' as the

British and Canadian landings at Juno beach?" Brown asked. "Was American Airlines Flight 11's crash into the North Tower of the World Trade Center part of the same 'incident' as American Airlines Flight 77's crash into the Pentagon? It is possible to answer both 'yes' and 'no' to each question. Ultimately, the answer depends on a broad consideration of all relevant facts.

"Taking everything together - a single group of people committing two simultaneous attacks planned as part of a coordinated assault on an identifiable group of individuals at similar locations using weapons from the same shipment - we think the Vienna and Rome attacks constitute the same 'incident.' ... Indeed, Syria concedes that the simultaneous attack of two tour buses at opposite sides of a city would be a single act or incident if the attacks were planned together and by the same people. We see no difference here."

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