How does OVT work to ensure that where U.S. citizens are injured or killed in terrorist attacks overseas, investigation and prosecution remain a high priority within the Department of Justice?

Who does OVT assist?

How can I stay informed about the investigation and prosecution of an overseas terrorist attack?

Will the perpetrator of the terrorist attack be prosecuted? If so, where?

If there is a court case, will victims be able to attend?

As a victim, do I need to hire a lawyer if the trial is in a foreign country?

How does OVT work to ensure that where U.S. citizens are injured or killed in terrorist attacks overseas, investigation and prosecution remain a high priority within the Department of Justice?

OVT’s efforts to identify victims, monitor victim cases, and ensure victims’ rights help keep victim cases and issues a priority with investigators and prosecutors. Moreover, maintaining communication and cooperation with victims is a key element in a successful investigation and prosecution. Through its advocacy on behalf of victims and in serving as a bridge between victims and decision-makers, OVT has made many valuable contributions to the investigation and prosecution of terrorism offenses domestically as well as abroad and kept justice for the victims a primary Department goal. OVT’s efforts include the following:

  • OVT reports directly to the office of the Assistant Attorney General for National Security. Direct reporting enables OVT to raise U.S. citizen victims’ issues, views, and concerns at a high level in the Justice Department.
  • OVT’s Director participates in weekly meetings led by the Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Counterterrorism and Counterespionage to stay current on case status and ensure that U.S. victims are identified and their issues addressed.
  • OVT coordinates meetings between senior Justice Department officials and U.S. victims of overseas terrorism.
  • OVT staff sends daily case updates to staff in the Assistant Attorney General’s office and prosecutors and investigators around the country and abroad.
  • OVT has conducted extensive training on victims’ rights and services in overseas terrorism cases.
  • For the past four years, OVT has sponsored a commemoration ceremony within the National Security Division for National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.

Who does OVT assist?

OVT supports and assists U.S. citizen victims and families of U.S. citizen victims who are injured or killed in terrorist attacks in foreign countries.

Congress indicated that OVT’s purpose is “...to ensure that the investigation and prosecution of deaths of American Citizens overseas are a high priority within the Department of Justice…” Conference Report, H.R. 4818, Title I, Section 126 (108th Congress). When establishing the Office, the Attorney General stated that the geographic scope of the Office will not be limited to any specific region, but, instead, will extend more generally to terrorist attacks against Americans abroad, including such countries as Canada and Mexico. The Attorney General interpreted the legislation not to apply to attacks against American members of the armed forces or National Guard in war zones.

Where the direct victim is deceased, incapacitated, or a minor, services will be provided to representative victims, such as spouses, legal guardians, parents, children, siblings, other family members or other persons designated by a court. More than one representative victim can be identified depending on the circumstances. A person being held as a hostage will be considered an incapacitated direct victim. Accordingly, family members will be considered representative victims.

In keeping with Justice Department policy, OVT operates under a presumption in favor of providing rather than withholding services. See Attorney General Guidelines for Victim and Witness Assistance, Art. II.A (May 2012). OVT provides additional assistance to victims where appropriate and within available resources, as situations warrant. (Id.) (See also Id. at Article III.I).

how can I stay informed about the investigation and prosecution of an overseas terrorist attack?

OVT will work to keep victims and their families informed about significant developments related to an overseas investigation and prosecution of a terrorist attack. Please keep in mind, however, that OVT strives to convey only information which has been verified by a trustworthy source. Oftentimes media reports, especially as they relate to the criminal justice system of a foreign country, may be inaccurate or incomplete. OVT maintains password secured websites with information on many attacks against American citizens. If you are victim or the family member of a victim you can email OVT to request access and password information for the relevant attack at nsd.ovt@usdoj.gov. OVT also provides victim information through phone calls, emails, letters, and personal briefings.

For information about a U.S. government investigation or prosecution, OVT will put victims in touch with the appropriate FBI or Justice Department contacts. The FBI is the U.S. investigative agency. U.S. prosecutions are handled by the Counterterrorism Section in the Justice Department’s National Security Division and by a United States Attorney’s Office.

Will the perpetrators of the terrorist attack be prosecuted? If so, where?

Foreign Prosecutions: Terrorist attacks in foreign countries are usually a crime in the country where the attack occurs.  Many times the government of the country where an attack occurs will pursue justice in its own criminal justice system for all of the victims, including U.S. citizen victims.  Law enforcement agencies in the country where the attack occurs have sole jurisdiction to investigate crimes within their borders.  Foreign law enforcement’s ability to investigate crimes can vary greatly based on many factors, including capability, training, resources, and degree of control over the geographical location where the crime occurred.  If law enforcement is able to collect sufficient evidence to bring charges and apprehend the perpetrators, the crime may be prosecuted in court.    Some countries have special terrorism or military courts that handle terrorist crimes, while in other countries terrorist crimes are handled in the ordinary criminal courts.

Prosecution in the United States: The Department of Justice is committed to the principle that those who engage in or materially support terrorist acts against U.S. citizens must be brought to justice, whether in the United States or elsewhere, regardless of where the attack took place.  Accordingly, the Department remains committed to bringing appropriate charges against the perpetrators of such acts in the United States whenever such prosecution would be feasible and supported by evidence in our possession.

Generally, the following steps are necessary for a prosecution in the United States:

(1) Evidence Collection: Sufficient admissible evidence must be obtained, including from foreign authorities.

(2) Charges: A Grand Jury must charge the perpetrators in an Indictment or the Prosecutor must charge the perpetrators through an Information or Complaint.

(3) Arrest: The persons charged must be arrested either in the United States or overseas.

(4) Extradition (or other lawful removal and return of the suspect): If a charged person is in the custody of a foreign government, the foreign government must agree to transfer the person to the United States to stand trial.

This process can take many years. Sometimes charges are filed in the United States, but are not made public. One purpose for nonpublic charges is to make it easier to capture the perpetrators. Although the FBI and prosecutors are generally legally required to provide victims with information about the status of a United States investigation, government staff will not always be able to share particular details about the case because it could interfere with the investigation, would violate a court order, or would otherwise be inappropriate.

The United States may not be able to prosecute a case that occurs in a foreign country, even when a foreign nation cooperates with the FBI. Some of the reasons may include:

  • The evidence collected in a foreign country may not be admissible in U.S. courts.

  • The United States does not possess sufficient admissible evidence to prove guilt of a perpetrator beyond a reasonable doubt.

  • A foreign country’s prosecution may take precedence.

  • The host country may decide to imprison the perpetrator.

  • The host country may not agree to extradite the perpetrator to the United States or there may be legal or other obstacles to extradition.

  • The perpetrator cannot be found or apprehended.

  • There may be concerns about compromising the investigation if an arrest is made while the case is still being investigated.

If there is a court case will victims be able to attend?

Depending on the location of the court proceeding, victims may be able to attend. It is also possible that security concerns, the laws of that country, or some other factor may affect victims' ability to observe court proceedings. OVT will work to inform victims about the status of court proceedings, providing as much information as is allowed. OVT will also advocate for victim participation within foreign court systems.

In the United States federal courts, victims have a right not to be excluded from public court proceedings.

as a victim, Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer if the Trial is in a Foreign Country?

The decision to hire a lawyer to represent your interests as a victim is a very personal decision based on a number of important factors. While some countries may, as a matter of law or legal tradition, provide victims or their surviving family members with legal representation, the vast majority of countries do not. A comprehensive discussion of the factors to consider before hiring a foreign attorney may be found on the Department of State’s website .


Updated July 26, 2016