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Mike Kelly’s “Bus on Jaffa Road” Takes on Long-Term Reach of Terrorism

Teaneck–For years, terrorism was one of many issues Mike Kelly wrote about during his long career at the Bergen Record. But after 9/11, the Teaneck resident became more engaged in the topic, when he spent three days at Ground Zero without coming home, and kept going back day after day to cover the story. For the next five years, he looked for a better understanding of terrorists and terrorism. He studied terrorist attacks that affected his local community in New Jersey and discovered there was a need for reform. Kelly told JLBC: “When a person is a victim of terrorism overseas, there is no prescribed pathway. We need a more coherent and consistent policy in terms of how we relate to victims of terrorism.”

The idea of a government policy that is sensible and grounded did not come to Kelly immediately. First he immersed himself in researching separate terrorist attacks that killed two locals–West Orange’s Alisa Flatow in Kfar Darom in 1995 and, just 10 months later, Teaneck’s Sara Duker and her fiance Matthew Eisenfeld, who were on their way to Jordan. His conclusions inspired Kelly to write a book being published this month. “The Bus on Jaffa Road: A Story of Middle East Terrorism and the Search for Justice.” It is narrative non-fiction–he paces and unfolds the story dramatically so that it resembles a novel, yet the book is filled with facts.

Covering the Middle East for the Record was always a local story for Kelly. “There are so many people here with ties over there,” he said. Before he started the book, he had been to Israel five times since 2001. He also went to Iraq, Southeast Asia and Guantanamo Bay for Middle East terrorism coverage.

In 2006, Kelly, when it appeared as though a lasting peace might be brokered between the Israelis and Palestinians, (“How wrong we were,” said Kelly.) he decided he wanted to know how terrorists and suicide bombings would be dealt with after peace was established. He applied for and received permission to interview the jailed Hassan Salameh, a Hamas terrorist who was trained in bomb-making by the Iranians, and who was considered the mastermind of the bombing that killed Duker and Eisenfeld. When Kelly met with him, he learned that Salameh had no remorse for the killings.

“This was a transformative moment for me. I wrote a column about it and moved on, but I was deeply disturbed. I have met my share of criminals, and usually after time passes–a decade or more–they exhibit some sort of regret or remorse. Salameh was different–in part because there was no remorse, no regrets. He took a certain amount of joy in killing people… a sociopath, really,” said Kelly.

“I started the interview with a very personal question: Do you know the name Sara Duker? And he did know it. But in a rhetorical tennis match, he said he said he was doing God’s will, and that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I don’t think he’s terribly religious. He says he’s doing God’s will, but this theology he’s bought into is his excuse to kill people,” Kelly said.

Later, as he fleshed out the idea with an editor, Kelly decided to use this as the key to his book, though discoveries he made over the course of his research led him to uncover more information. In the U.S. State Department’s reports on the Flatow and Duker/Eisenfeld deaths, he discovered that they had identified a link between the two attacks.

“Suicide attacks are not the work of one person, but the work of six or seven people. They are highly sophisticated and well-financed, with extraordinarily elaborate technology,” Kelly said. The link, Kelly found, was the name of a suspect on both terrorist attack ‘teams.’ “His name is Adnan Al-Ghoul. Whereabouts unknown. Probably in Gaza,” he added.

As the book continues, it takes a turn toward the families of the American terrorist victims. It discussed what they faced in the aftermath of their children’s murders, and the court cases that ensued once Congress passed legislation allowing families to file civil lawsuits in federal court–if they could prove that one of seven governments known to support terrorist regimes were responsible for the deaths. Stephen Flatow’s case against Iran, awarding the family $247 million in punitive damages, was the first of these cases. The Duker and Eisenfeld families’ cases followed.

Most of these cases have recovered, at most, only a fraction of the money awarded in federal courts, because the US government is unable to collect debts from foreign governments. Kelly’s research also highlighted problems with the current judicial system regarding support for families of terrorist victims, Kelly said.

Kelly said he is particularly bothered by how, in most cases, families are left hanging. There are many families whose immediate relatives have been injured or killed in terrorist attacks since the 1980s, and most have no answers as to who did it or who is responsible. “There is a statue of Sara down by the library–it’s titled ‘Unfinished Life.’ It’s not just body counts or their impact on the world that matter, it’s how terrorism touches ordinary people. When a bomb goes off, someone’s son or daughter or aunt or uncle dies. For that person, it’s an indelible wound that lasts forever.

“There is no firm policy that ‘when you are killed overseas, this is what we will do.’ Why isn’t our government taking a more active role in this? Why can’t the justice department go to court on behalf of these people?” Kelly asked.

Mike Kelly will be speaking about his book and signing copies on Sunday, November 23rd at the Teaneck Public Library, at 3pm. Copies will be available for purchase. The book is also available here: http://www.amazon.com/Bus-Jaffa-Road-Terrorism-Justice/dp/0762780371.

By Elizabeth Kratz

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