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Charleston Business

Motley Rice leads the charge in anti-terrorism litigation by suing banks that support violent extremists

By Makayla Gay

Like so many, Jodi Flowers watched the horrible events of September 11, 2001, and it changed her. Since then, Flowers and her associates on Motley Rice’s anti-terrorism litigation team have been working to make sure those who finance terrorists pay a hefty price.

“We got involved not because we sought it out, but because we got a call,” Flowers says. “What really got us started was a person.”

That person was Deena Burnett, whose husband Tom died on United Flight 93 after trying to take control of the plane from the hijackers. Working on that case put the team in contact with more families who had been impacted.

In 2002, Motley Rice filed a suit,Thomas Burnett Sr. et al v Al Baraka Banking and Investment, et al— the very first case to bring a financial institution to trial under the Anti-Terrorism Act. “You don’t have to show banks planted a bomb, only that they aided and abetted material support to a terror attack,” Flowers says.

In 2014, a jury found Arab Bank unanimously liable for financing terrorist activity. 

Today, Motley Rice is leading the charge in anti-terrorism litigation. They recognize that without financing, terrorists can’t turn their violent ideas into actions. The firm’s co-founder, Ron Motley, who took on Big Tobacco and the asbestos industry before he died in 2013, believed just as passionately in taking on those who finance terrorism.

The 11 attorneys on the anti-terrorism team use a variety of approaches, many hinging on the Anti-Terrorist Act, a law that gives victims the right to punish terrorists and their supporters through the U.S. civil justice system. 

After 9/11, the firm eventually represented more than 6,600 survivors and family members in litigation against al Qaeda and the individuals, banks, and corporations that supported it. The action has been consolidated in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York as In re Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001. 

In March 2017, Motley Rice and co-counsel filed an amended complaint requesting that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia be listed as a defendant, and in March 2018, a judge denied Saudi Arabia’s attempt to dismiss the litigation. The judge also allowed plaintiffs to move forward with targeted jurisdictional discovery.

Afterward, Flowers says the ruling was a “huge step forward” for the suit, and that the 6,600 survivors and family members had waited 15 years to see that Saudi Arabia is held accountable. 

Mike Elsner has been with Motley Rice since 2002, and he says cases like Burnett v. Al Baraka Banking curtail other terrorist acts by targeting those who knowingly fund terrorists. Not only are financial institutions held responsible for terrorist violence, but airlines and hotels where attacks occur can be sued for any lax security measures. 

A suit, however, can only do so much. “There will always be others who step up to carry out an attack,” Elsner says.  

For the attorneys at Motley Rice, the purpose goes beyond achieving compensation for victims—it’s about a sense of justice, Elsner says, and giving a voice to those who have been injured or wronged, and in many cases can no longer speak for themselves.