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U.S. News
Lawsuit seeks to cripple terrorists' means to strike

Friday, August 16, 2002

By Ann McFeatters, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Thomas Burnett tried hard not to cry yesterday as he recalled how his 38-year-old son was among those who died after charging the cockpit of Flight 93, helping to save "hundreds and perhaps thousands of lives."

Burnett was in Washington to participate in an unusual and difficult lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court that he said would "expose the underbelly of the financing of terrorism. Nothing could be a greater tribute to Tom's memory."

Burnett united with more than 600 other relatives of Sept. 11 victims to file the lawsuit yesterday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va. It seeks "an amount in excess of $100 trillion" and charges the defendants with racketeering, wrongful death, negligence and conspiracy.

The plaintiffs -- calling themselves "Families United to Bankrupt Terrorism" -- are hoping to drain the assets of 99 Islamic charities, banks, individuals and countries they say financed the assaults by the al-Qaida network of Osama bin Laden. The action, the plaintiffs say, is not intended to recover money but rather to prevent future attacks.

Thomas Burnett's widow, Deena, also is a plaintiff.

On Sept. 11, she told her husband on his cell phone of the jets that had attacked the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, which persuaded him that he and other passengers had to act to stop their plane from being used as well as a weapon against another target, presumably in Washington. She remembers how calm her husband was on the phone.

"It's up to us, and I think we can do it," he told her. His plane crashed near Shanksville in Somerset County.

Flanked by 33 family members of victims and some who were injured in the Sept. 11 attacks, Charleston, S.C., class action lawyer Ron Motley held a news conference to say he expects about 1,000 families of Sept. 11 victims to join the suit. He said it was being lodged using a series of laws, including the Patriot Act passed after Sept. 11 that encourages such citizen action.

Motley conceded that the Bush administration was providing no help. He said that after three meetings with State Department officials, "we received zero pieces of paper and zero help" in putting together the 259-page complaint.

One reason may be that the lawsuit cites among its defenandants three members of Saudi Arabia's royal family as financial supporters of terrorism. The official U.S. position has been that Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally, and State Department officials reiterated that stance again yesterday.

Prince Saud last week said the 70-year-old U.S.-Saudi alliance was as solid now as before the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. He said bin Laden, who was stripped of Saudi citizenship and is accused of directing the al-Qaida attacks, had intended to drive a wedge between the two countries when he chose 15 Saudi citizens to be among the 19 hijackers.

In all, the complaint names more than seven dozen defendants, including the government of Sudan, seven banks and eight Islamic foundations as well as the three Saudi princes. Those listed include Princes Mohammed al-Faisal and former intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Defense Minister Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, Khalid bin Salim bin Mahfouz of the National Commercial Bank, and the Faisal Islamic Bank.

"That kingdom sponsors terrorism," Motley said. "This is an insidious group of people."

The current suit is similar to one filed against Libya alleging that it supported terrorists who blew up Pan Am Flight 103, which was destroyed by a bomb in 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Motley has warned the Sept. 11 victims' families that, at minimum, they'll have to wait three to four years for a legal outcome. His model, he said, is the successful lawsuit that his firm undertook against tobacco firms, which consumed years but resulted in a $365 billion judgment for 20 states in reparation for losses from smoking-related illness and death.

The Justice Department asserts that at least $100 million in assets that were available to terrorists have already been frozen through a U.S.-led effort to dry up bin Laden's funding. But Motley insisted that more billions of dollars remain available to terrorists through their backers.

"We are dealing here with the ultimate of the evil empire," he said. "We fully expect the Saudi nationals and the Gulf states banks to fight. But if they fight, they must cross the ocean and fight here. Our goal is to achieve accountability and publicize the facts. There are plenty of facts."

Ellen Saracini, wife of Victor Saracini, 51, the captain of United Flight 175, which crashed into the World Trade Center, said, "This is now a defining time when we show terrorists that we will not stand still" after a day in which Americans "lost our innocence." It's time, she said, "to strike back."

Irene Spina hadn't planned to address the news conference. But speaking through tears as she thought of her daughter, Lisa Trerotola, 38, who died in the World Trade Center, she declared: "It's not the money. We want to do something to get at these people. There's nothing else we can do."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Ann McFeatters can be reached at amcfeatters@nationalpress.com or 202-662-7071.

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