The families of three US soldiers killed by a guard at a military base in Jordan two years ago say their recently-filed lawsuit against the kingdom “is the only way” to expose the truth behind their relatives’ deaths.
In the complaint, which was submitted on Friday to a federal court in Washington, DC, the families accuse Jordan of being “complicit in a terrorist act” and seek unspecified damages over the wrongful death of their loved ones.
The three special forces soldiers – Staff Sergeant Matthew Lewellen, 27; Staff Sergeant Kevin McEnroe, 30; and Staff Sergeant James Moriarty, 27 – were part of a CIA programme training members of Syrian opposition groups in Jordan.
On November 4, 2016, they were shot at close range by Maarik al-Tawaiha, a sergeant in the Jordanian Air Force, when their convoy was stopped at the gate of the King Faisal base in southern Jordan after a training mission nearby.
Al-Tawaiha, who was named as a co-defendant in the lawsuit, was later convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison by a Jordanian military court.
The Jordanian sergeant had pleaded not guilty, maintaining that he opened fire because he believed the US troops were posing a threat after failing to stop their vehicle as they approached the gate.
According to publicly available documents in regards to the case, neither the FBI, which investigated the incident, nor the Jordanian government was able to establish a motive for the killing.
“The families have decided to file a lawsuit because it is the only way to get the truth,” James R Moriarty, father of the slain 27-year-old soldier, told Al Jazeera on Monday.
He added that “there is no reason why the FBI still withholds information about the case and refuses to share with the families.”
Alleged Jordan cover-up
The lawsuit alleges that Jordan was engaged in “a cover-up” in the killing of the soldiers because of its multiple conflicting statements in the hours, days and months that followed the shooting.
These statements, the complaint says, showed that Amman was “complicit” in a “terrorist act” against legally protected US citizens on Jordanian soil.
Maarik al-Tawaiha [Courtesy of Al-Tawaiha family/Al Jazeera]
An initial statement carried by Jordan’s state media after the shooting claimed that the US soldiers had violated protocol and “refused to obey orders” upon entering the base, triggering the shooting from al-Tawaiha who shot them in accordance with “internationally recognised rules of engagement”.
There were also claims that the soldiers had consumed alcohol and that the killing was precipitated by some kind of “loud noise” or a shot that was heard in the vicinity.
Amid growing pressure, these statements were later retracted and the Jordanian government released a six-minute video of the incident that contradicted the previous version of events and officially apologised to the families.
Jordanian sources who were present at the hospital where the US soldiers were taken after the shooting told Al Jazeera that laboratory tests showed no presence of alcohol in their blood.
Moriarty, the father, insisted that there was Jordanian complicity in the incident, asking: “Why about 10 Jordanian soldiers who were present at the gate at the time of the shooting did not try to help my son who laid wounded on the ground?”
Brian McEnroe, the father of Kevin McEnroe, also told Al Jazeera on Monday: “The bottom line is that Jordan … started a false narrative from the day the shooting happened and continued to lie for four months after the incident trying not to blame the shooter and saying he was acting properly – and it was clear he did not.”
Jumana Ghunaimat, a spokesperson for the Jordanian government, did not respond to calls and messages requesting comments for this report.
Khalil Atieh, the longest-serving member of the Jordanian parliament, rejected the claims against Jordan in the lawsuit.
“Jordan has never aided and abetted terrorism, on the contrary, Jordan stands at the forefront in the war against terrorism in this region,” Atieh told Al Jazeera, adding that his country “has paid a heavy price because of our stance against terrorism and for its alliance with the US against terrorism”.
Referring to al-Tawaiha’s case, Atieh said, “The shooter was tried, convicted and sentenced in Jordanian court and everyone should respect the integrity of the Jordanian justice system.”
Jordan, a close ally of the United States, receives $1.7bn in economic and military aid a year from Washington.
Three US soldiers were killed at the entrance of the base [US Army]
Speaking to Al Jazeera, a relative of al-Tawaiha who wished to remain anonymous said the convicted Jordanian soldier was made a “scapegoat” to cover up the responsibility of certain government officials. The relative did not name the officials he was referring to.
“We pressed government officials in a meeting with them last year to publicly release the entire video of the incident but they refused,” the relative claimed.
He added that the officials, in refusing to release more information, said that there were things they should not see or know about.
Sayel Abu Tayeh, a former member of Jordan’s armed forces and a close relative of al-Tawaiha said he still believes the convicted sergeant is innocent, claiming that there is more information to this case than what has been publicly released.
“We don’t accept or agree to the killing of any American citizen,” he told Al Jazeera. “On the contrary, we are sorry that Americans were killed. The responsibility of their killing, however, lies elsewhere.”
A former senior Jordanian military officer familiar with the case, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, argued that Jordan has only itself to blame in this case because “its officials did not tell the truth” in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and “did not respect the people who died on its soil”.