Law enforcement officials ruled it was a premeditated attack after finding notes indicating Abu Kamal's anger over Palestine and Israel. At the time, Abu Kamal's widow stated the shooting spree was not politically motivated, but rooted in his despondency over financial ruin.
Ali Hassan Abu Kamal was a 69-year-old Palestinian English teacher. He was born in Jaffa in Mandate Palestine on September 19, 1927. He was the son of a refugee family that fled the city during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and resettled in Gaza. He became a well-respected English teacher at a local high school and a university, and he was also a well-paid tutor and accomplished translator. He earned about $3,000 a month and lived in an affluent neighborhood with his wife, and had six children.
In 1996, he decided his family should relocate to the United States for a better life. He obtained a legal nonimmigrant visa and arrived in New York on December 24, 1996.
Abu Kamal opened fire shortly after 5 p.m. on February 23, 1997, on the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building, one of New York City's most popular tourist attractions. Before he started shooting, he muttered something about Egypt, apparently shouting, "Are you from Egypt?" The NYPD said they did not know whether it was said in an effort to spare or identify potential victims. Surviving victims however witness that Abu Kamal asked them in a friendly way whether "you are Italian or American?" before the shooting started.
Abu Kamal used a 14-shot .380-caliber Beretta 84 handgun that he apparently bought in Florida at the end of January 1997. Abu Kamal killed one person and wounded another six before shooting himself in the head. He was taken to a hospital where he died five hours later.
The sole murder victim was 27-year-old Christoffer Burmeister, a Danish musician who was living in New York and played in a band. He was visiting the Empire State Building with bandmate Matthew Gross, who was critically wounded in the attack.
According to law enforcement officials, Abu Kamal's attack was premeditated, based on his visit to the observation deck the day before the shooting. A pair of identical letters, one in English and one in Arabic, was also found in a pouch around his neck. The letters were a diatribe against the "Big Three" of the United States, France, and England for their mistreatment of Palestinians, as well as against Zionism, which he said oppressed Palestinians.
Despite the letter's reference to Palestine and Zionists, Abu Kamal's widow offered another explanation that the real motive for the shooting spree was not political but rooted in financial ruin. The letter had also named two business partners, who Abu Kamal claimed swindled him out of money, losing $300,000 in a business venture. At that point, she said he became suicidal. His daughter added that he could not return home after losing the money.
In February 2007, 10 years after the shooting, the New York Daily News reported that Abu Kamal's daughter, Linda, was "tired of lying" about her father's motives for the attack. She told the Daily News that her father wanted to punish the U.S. for supporting Israel and revealed that her mother's 1997 account was a cover story fabricated by the Palestinian Authority.