WASHINGTON – The arrest of four men accused of plotting to attack two Bronx synagogues underscores the threat to Jewish targets by individuals or small groups, several experts said.
From the shooting at a Los Angeles Jewish community center 10 years ago through the attack on the Seattle Jewish federation building in 2006, to the suspect targeting Jews at Wesleyan University in Connecticut earlier this month, an individual or small group not formally connected with al-Qaeda or any major international terrorist group was at the center of the threat.
Police believe that the four suspects arrested last week – James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen – were working alone. They were taken into custody the night of May 20 shortly after planting fake explosives, which they believed to be real, in cars parked outside the Riverdale Temple, a Reform synagogue, and the Riverdale Jewish Center, an Orthodox synagogue. They also wanted to shoot down military planes at a nearby base, according to reports.
Reports that an FBI informant played a key role in encouraging and financing the plot has prompted questions about how serious a threat was posed by the four suspects. But several security experts who work with the Jewish community said the case provides a clear road map for protecting against potential threats.
“All you need to know about terrorism you can learn from this case,” said Steve Pomerantz, former assistant director and director of counterterrorism at the FBI.
Jews will always be at the top of the list of targets for terrorists, he said, and groups unaffiliated with a large international terrorist group are “at least as dangerous” as well-known groups such as al-Qaeda because they can “more easily slip through the intelligence net.”
Paul Goldenberg, the executive director of the Jewish-organized Secure Community Network, stressed “one common denominator” present in all the past plots: hostile surveillance by the attackers.
“They were methodical enough and premeditated enough to plan and study the target,” said Goldenberg, whose network was established 3½ years ago by the United Jewish Communities and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to coordinate and advise on security procedures within the Jewish community.
For example, the criminal complaint for the New York plot states that last month, one of the defendants “photographed several synagogues and Jewish community centers in the Bronx and elsewhere for consideration as possible targets in a planned terrorist bombing campaign” and said bombing one of the JCCs would be a “piece of cake.”
That’s why employees and others at Jewish institutions need to be “extremely cognizant” of what’s going on around the facility, Goldenberg said, because individuals could be watching the building, studying the patterns in which people enter and the times security guards patrol the surroundings.
“If people are acting nervous in a location where they shouldn’t be, say something,” he said, adding that while most institutions have video camera surveillance, personnel must be trained to spot potential dangers.
The fact that the suspects in the New York case and others acted independently and are not affiliated with any foreign terrorist group, Goldenberg said, does make it “very difficult to track them.”
“Just because they’re not members doesn’t make them any less dangerous,” he said, adding that they are “influenced by the materials they read.”
Goldenberg stressed that with the recent arrests, there is “no further threat to any Jewish institution” from the plot.
Speaking at the Riverdale Jewish Center just hours after the plot was foiled, New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said that the suspects “stated they wanted to make jihad.”
The four men, all of Newburgh 60 miles north of New York, are Muslims, and three reportedly are recent converts to Islam. Payen is a native of Haiti.
Pomerantz noted reports that the plotters met in prison, similar to the four men arrested in Los Angeles in 2005 on charges of plotting terror attacks on Jewish and military targets.
Yehudit Barsky, director of the American Jewish Committee’s division on Middle East and international terrorism, said prisoners often are attracted to Islam when incarcerated because of the “cohesiveness of the group.” Barsky has been tracking that issue.
“There are different social networks in prison” and Muslims will often pray together, eat together and protect each other, she said.
The defendants are likely to argue in their defense that they really were not that involved in the plot and that the government informant, who allegedly acquired the weapons for them, actually had directed the operation.
Pomerantz said the fact that the plot went as far as actually planting the weapons, although inoperative, made it unlikely that such a defense could be successful.
“This is as good a case as you can have,” he said.