Ordinarily, United States courts do not have jurisdiction over lawsuits against foreign states. The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) is a federal statute that provides the sole basis for asserting jurisdiction over recognized foreign states and it does this by carving out narrow exceptions to the general rule protecting foreign governments from being sued in our courts. In 1996, as part of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), Congress passed an additional exception to the FSIA that granted American citizens the right to sue foreign states designated as “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” This Terrorism Exception to the FSIA can be found in 28 U.S.C. § 1605A.
State Sponsors of Terrorism are countries the Secretary of State has formally determined to have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism. Currently there are 4 designated countries: Syria, Iran, North Korea, and Cuba. (Libya, Iraq, and Sudan have been removed from the list.) Syria has been designated since 1979, Iran since 1984, North Korea since 2017, and Cuba since 2021.
Under § 1605A, U.S. federal courts can exercise jurisdiction over claims which cause personal injury or death to U.S. citizens and result from acts of terrorism committed or sponsored by Syria, Iran, North Korea or Cuba. To be eligible to bring a lawsuit against one of these countries, a plaintiff must be claiming money damages for personal injuries or death caused by (1) an act of torture, (2) extrajudicial killing (or attempted extrajudicial killing), (3) aircraft sabotage, (4) hostage taking, or (5) the provision of material support or resources for one of those four acts. Federal judges have consistently awarded monetary damages to terror victims under the FSIA’s Terrorism Exception for deaths and injuries caused by, for example, the Libyan bombing of an airliner over Scotland, Iranian kidnappings, and Iranian material support to Palestinian terrorist groups.