LAX Shooter Motivated by Personal Woes, Probe Finds
Federal investigators have all but concluded that Hesham Mohamed Hadayet was motivated more by personal woes than by political anger when he shot and killed two people at the El Al Airlines ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport on July 4.
Wrapping up their investigation of a tragedy that drew worldwide attention, FBI agents, working with other federal agencies, have determined that Hadayet chose an Israeli target because of his disdain for that nation’s policies toward Palestinians. But he acted alone and was not connected to any terrorist groups, investigators say.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Sept. 12, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 12, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 4 inches; 168 words Type of Material: Correction
LAX gunman--An article in the Sept. 5 California section incorrectly described a weapon used by the gunman who killed two people at Los Angeles International Airport on July 4. It should have referred to the weapon as a 9-millimeter pistol.
Instead, sources say, the Egyptian immigrant’s rampage--on his 41st birthday--was sparked by despondence over a financially troubled limousine business and the infirmities of his aging parents, as well as his anger over Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Ultimately, sources say, those factors led Hadayet to open fire near an El Al counter before being gunned down by a security guard for the airline.
“He created an act of terror,” said one source. “But we don’t believe it would have happened were it not for the other personal issues like his finances.”
The preliminary conclusion is still under review by FBI headquarters in Washington and by other federal agencies, and will not be finalized until authorities are certain that all leads have been exhausted, the sources said.
For example, federal documents made public this week show that Hadayet requested political asylum in the U.S. in 1992 because of his strong Islamic religious beliefs.
In the days after the shooting, FBI officials were careful not to preclude any motive, including an act of terrorism or a hate crime.
Just two weeks ago, in a letter to a congressman, Assistant FBI Director John E. Collingwood wrote that the case was being pursued as a terrorism investigation and that “the FBI has not ruled out any possibilities with regard to our investigation of this terrible incident.”
During its probe, which has extended from Hadayet’s Orange County residence to his birthplace in Egypt, FBI investigators--working with agents of the CIA, National Security Agency, INS and other agencies--have become convinced that Hadayet was, as several agents described, “a lone wolf.”
Authorities found that Hadayet, a devout Muslim, had been depressed for some time.
Once a successful accountant in Cairo, Hadayet had been struggling for years as the owner-operator of a limousine business in Orange County.
And though he was only about $10,000 in debt, one source said, the financial burden weighed heavily on Hadayet.
Adding to his depression, according to the investigation, were the infirmities of his parents and Hadayet’s concern that his family was being too influenced by Western culture.
During the investigation, one internal debate has been whether to classify the shooting spree as a hate crime or a terrorist act. And that debate, sources said, was continuing in Los Angeles and Washington two months after the incident.
Investigators have found, for example, that although Hadayet had voiced increasing anger over Israel’s policies in the Middle East, he did not let that derail the relationships he and his family had with Jewish friends in the U.S. “That tells you he didn’t have political hatred for a race or religion,” said one source. “It was more hatred for the policies of Israel.”
Nevertheless, investigators believe Hadayet may have been planning some sort of violence for weeks since he went to a shooting range in May.
In addition, authorities developed timelines that combined all the evidence they had collected--from Hadayet’s financial problems to e-mail and other data found on the hard drive of his computer.
An analysis of the computer determined that Hadayet had accessed Web sites that carry pro-Palestinian messages about the conflict in the Middle East. But those Web sites, according to one source, were hardly the stuff of terrorism and could be readily accessed by anyone upset about Israel and/or U.S. policy in the region.
After locally-based federal agents investigated Hadayet and the shooting for weeks, additional agents specializing in behavior analysis arrived in Los Angeles from Washington in mid-July, hoping to pinpoint what may have triggered Hadayet’s crime.
“It was his birthday. He was depressed, [and] he knew there would be higher security at the airport” because of the July 4 holiday, said one law enforcement source. “And he thought, ‘Why not?’ ”
Friends said that Hadayet, who had been in the United States for a decade, had largely failed in his original dreams of building a successful business.
When he arrived in 1992, he sought political asylum, alleging that he had encountered discrimination in Egypt for his staunch religious beliefs, according to federal immigration court papers.
In his application, made available to The Times under a Freedom of Information Act request, Hadayet wrote that he joined a Muslim mosque association in Egypt in 1984 “to understand truly and apply Islamic law in the 20th century under any circumstances.”
“I am always being arrested by government agents” whenever there is an emergency or political event in Egypt, Hadayet wrote.
“I am always [being] followed, jailed, threatened by phone [or] letter for no reason, just because I am a religious individual who has a strong belief in my religion and God,” Hadayet wrote.
And in a section of the asylum form that asks what an applicant believes might happen if he or she is deported home, Hadayet said he and his family would be persecuted.
“I will be arrested for no specific reason and for unknown duration of time,” he wrote, adding, “My family will be exposed to persecution, torture and maybe jailed and framed for crimes they did not commit. Their only crime is that they are too religious and close to God.”
Although Hadayet’s application says that he and an uncle were arrested and tortured, one law enforcement source said the federal investigation had not turned up any evidence to support that claim. Likewise, the source said, authorities had not substantiated Hadayet’s assertion that he had been persecuted for his religious beliefs.
Federal authorities checked the Cairo mosque mentioned in Hadayet’s letter and could find no evidence that it was linked to extremists, the source said.
A spokesman for the Egyptian consulate in San Francisco said he was not familiar with Hadayet’s asylum application and could not comment on its claims.
Two federal officials said that the sorts of statements made by Hadayet are common to many applications for political asylum in the U.S. “That is what people always say” when they are seeking to avoid deportation back to their homeland, said one source.
Hadayet’s asylum application was filed in December 1992, only weeks before his visitor’s visa was set to expire. The asylum request was eventually denied, but Hadayet’s application and a later appeal of an immigration judge’s ruling allowed him to remain in the U.S.
Then in August 1997, his wife won an INS lottery that granted legal residency for the family.
Hadayet’s wife and two sons were on vacation in Egypt when he entered the Tom Bradley International Terminal and got in line at the El Al ticket counter, armed with a .45-caliber pistol, a .9-mm pistol, a hunting knife and an extra magazine for each of his handguns.
Without saying a word and with three or four passengers in front of him, Hadayet fired one round from the .45-caliber handgun toward the El Al sign, authorities said.
Over the next 30 seconds or so, Hadayet emptied the 10-round revolver before being shot once--and mortally wounded--by an El Al security guard.
Even after he was wounded, Hadayet continued to struggle with the security guard and a passenger who joined the fray, according to sources.
“I don’t think there’s a doubt,” said one law enforcement source, “that he knew he wouldn’t survive.”
Times staff writer Henry Weinstein contributed to this report.
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