Jewish Exponent : Synagogue Plot Underscores Threat From Independent Attackers

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Synagogue Plot Underscores Threat From Independent Attackers

Jewish Telegraphic Agency | May 28, 2009

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, said several experts.

Whether it was the shooting at a Los Angeles Jewish community center 10 years ago to the attack on the Seattle Jewish federation building in 2006 to the targeting of Jews at Connecticut's Wesleyan University earlier this month, an individual or small group not formally connected to 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 the authorities.

Reports that an FBI informant played a key role in encouraging and financing the plot have prompted questions about how serious a threat was. But several security experts who work with the Jewish community said that 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, a former assistant director of the FBI and a former director of its counterterrorism unit.

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 known groups such as Al Qaeda because they can "more easily slip through the intelligence net."

Paul Goldenberg, executive director of the Jewish-organized Secure Community Network, stressed "one common denominator" present in all past plots against Jews: hostile surveillance by the attackers.

"They were methodical ... and premeditated enough to plan and study the target," said Goldenberg, whose network was established 31/2 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." The JCC was "easy as pie" to target, according to the complaint.

Employees at Jewish institutions need to be "extremely cognizant" of what's going on, said Goldenberg, because individuals could be watching the building, studying the patterns of who enters and when security patrols the surroundings.

While most institutions have video-camera surveillance, personnel must be trained to spot potential dangers, he added.

In Philadelphia, officials at local Jewish institutions said that they would continue with the same vigilance they had already adopted.

At the Jewish Community Services Building -- home to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and other Jewish groups -- Domenic Vallone, director of operations, said that many precautions had been implemented within the past 18 months at the recommendation of the Department of Homeland Security and the counterterrorism wing of the Philadelphia Police Department.

Vallone said that he had been in contact with local authorities about safety in the wake of the plot, and noted that homeland security has conducted rapid response reports on the building several times in the past and been "very satisfied."

He also noted that plans were under way for DHS to come into the Federation building later this summer for a community-wide training program for Jewish agencies and synagogues -- something that was in the works prior to the New York incident.

Barry Morrison, executive director of the local branch of the Anti-Defamation League, said that his group sent out an alert about the importance of being vigilant, but hadn't heard much from local constituents.

"If people were apprehensive, we'd be hearing from them," he said. "There's a sense that agencies -- Jewish defense agencies and law enforcement -- are doing their work."

Jewish Exponent staff writer Aaron Passman contributed to this report.