probing the probe

FBI wades into murky territory with Abu Akleh probe

Washington has not explained its new investigation into the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh

Mahmoud Issa/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A Palestinian fighter from Saraya al-Quds, the military wing of the Islamic Jihad movement in Palestine, holds a banner with a picture of Shireen Abu Akleh at a demonstration in Beit Hanun, northern Gaza Strip.

The FBI sparked a political firestorm last week when Israel announced that the American law enforcement agency is investigating the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed in May during a skirmish between Palestinian militants and Israeli security forces in the West Bank city of Jenin. 

Whether the Abu Akleh investigation originated with a small team at DOJ, or was authorized at the top by Attorney General Merrick Garland, has not been specified. The scale of the investigation is also not known. The Department of Justice has not commented on the matter, and the White House and State Department told Israeli leaders they were not involved in the FBI’s decision to investigate, according to Axios

“Nobody’s actually mentioned what the potential crime would be. [Supporters of an FBI probe] use terms like accountability and justice, but the FBI doesn’t do accountability. The FBI doesn’t do fairness. The FBI does crimes. And so it’s unclear precisely what crime would be investigated, if indeed any crime is being investigated,” said one person who works on foreign policy in Washington and requested anonymity to speak freely. That individual’s attempts to reach contacts in the federal government, they told Jewish Insider, have gone unanswered. 

An Israel Defense Forces investigation completed in September found that Abu Akleh, a longtime Al Jazeera reporter, was likely killed unintentionally by Israeli forces, and authorities concluded that no disciplinary actions would be taken. In light of the investigation, the State Department vowed to press Israel to “closely review its policies and practices on rules of engagement,” deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said in September, and to “consider additional steps to mitigate the risk of civilian harm, protect journalists, and prevent similar tragedies in the future.”   

Several Democratic lawmakers signed letters over the summer criticizing the Biden administration’s response to Abu Akleh’s death and urging the U.S. to investigate further. 

The FBI probe into Abu Akleh’s death is not the first time the agency has investigated the deaths of American journalists abroad in the past. But the bureau does not have a hard-and-fast policy with respect to investigating the deaths of American journalists killed abroad. For instance, the parents of Christopher Allen, a dual American-British citizen who was killed reporting in South Sudan in 2017, have spent years urging the FBI to take up their son’s case, to no avail. ​​

Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian-American journalist known for her reporting in Chechnya, was found shot dead in her apartment building in Moscow in 2006. Several suspects were charged and acquitted at trial in Russia, but there is no public record of an official FBI investigation. And in 2019, an American court ruled that the Syrian government was liable for the death of American journalist Marie Colvin, who died in 2012 covering the Syrian civil war. But the FBI did not investigate her death. 

The FBI has operated a legal attaché office in Tel Aviv since 1996, and in that time the agency has closely collaborated with the Israel Police on terrorism and international fraud cases. In 2017, the two departments worked together to identify and arrest an Israeli accused of making bomb threats to dozens of Jewish organizations in the U.S. 

But Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz pledged last week that Israel will not participate in any external investigation into Abu Akleh’s death.

Critics of the FBI investigation argue that it will be disastrous for the U.S.-Israel relationship, and that an investigation of an allied nation’s military could in turn encourage other nations to investigate America’s military. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), a critic of President Joe Biden’s Middle East policy, called for the impeachment of any DOJ official, including Garland, involved with the matter. (Cruz has called for Garland to be impeached on numerous other occasions.)

The U.S. Security Coordinator (USSC) for Israel and the Palestinian Authority conducted a forensic examination of the bullet that struck and killed Abu Akleh. In July, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the USSC could not reach a “definitive conclusion” about whether the bullet was shot by an IDF soldier or by a Palestinian militant, and noted that “gunfire from IDF positions was likely responsible” but that the shooting was likely unintentional.

Nadine Farid Johnson, the Washington director of the free-expression advocacy organization PEN America, said an FBI investigation would serve to provide legitimacy, even if it reaches the same conclusion as the IDF and the USSC.

“Even if it doesn’t come to a different conclusion, the fact of the conducting of the investigation, I think, sends a strong message about the safety of journalists being able to do their job, knowing that that job is respected,” she told JI, and added that members of Abu Akleh’s family, who have criticized the IDF’s investigation, would not be able to have closure until the U.S. takes a closer look at what happened. “Having this credible, thorough, independent investigation into the death of an American citizen journalist would provide the information essential for Ms. Abu Akleh and her family to obtain justice.”

In the instances where the U.S. did investigate the deaths of American journalists killed abroad, the entities being investigated were not close American allies. 

“The FBI should not be distinguishing whether someone is a political ally, a friend or an enemy. We have a dead journalist who has died in disputed circumstances,” said Robert Mahoney, director of special projects at the Committee to Protect Journalists. “What we would like to see is that because this is a U.S. citizen, that the United States independently leads an inquiry.” 

Similar examples, Mahoney said, are the 2002 killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Karachi, and the 2014 murders of freelance journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by the Islamic State.

Pakistan, where Pearl was killed, is an American ally. But he was murdered by terrorists affiliated with the Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Kashmir-based Jihadist group. FBI agents worked closely with Pakistani law enforcement officials to identify and apprehend a suspect.

Foley and Sotloff were both beheaded by ISIS militants in Syria. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder publicly announced a criminal probe of the case just days after Foley died. Earlier this year, a top-ranking ISIS fighter involved with the murder of Foley and two dozen other hostages was sentenced to life in prison by a Virginia jury. 

“My sense is that it is not unusual for the FBI to try to investigate when Americans are killed overseas,” said Michael Koplow, chief policy officer at Israel Policy Forum. “I can’t recall it ever happening in the Israel context. So it certainly seems to me to be unusual with regard to Israel.”