On Monday a representative of a Jewish organization in Brooklyn called the police and asked whether the arrival of a package of toner cartridges should be of concern.
When asked the origin of the package, the representative said it was the company’s usual supplier of office products. Open the package without suspicion, the police counseled.
That tale, related by David Pollock, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York’s adviser on security issues and its associate executive director, illustrates the level of heightened concern sweeping across the Jewish community after two sophisticated bombs disguised as printer cartridges sent from Yemen were intercepted in Britain and Dubai as they were about to be loaded on Federal Express and United Parcel Service planes bound for the U.S. Pollock declined to name the organization with the cautious staff.
The packages were reportedly found after a Saudi formerly detained by the U.S. at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba told the Saudi government of a plot by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Saudis informed U.S. and British officials.
President Barack Obama said at a White House press conference Friday that the bombs were bound for “Jewish institutions in Chicago.”
It now appears likely the bombs were never intended to reach their designated destinations and were intended to bring the planes down. The New York Times cited an American official saying that the addresses used were for buildings that no longer house synagogues, and addressees were fictitious.
Still, the Department of Homeland Security sent agents to Chicago Sunday to help beef up security at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation, and the Secure Community Network planned a conference call with hundreds of Jewish agencies across the U.S. for Wednesday.
SCN was formed in 2005 by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to monitor security threats, work with law enforcement and keep the Jewish community informed.
“The Department of Homeland Security reached out to us and asked us to act as a catalyst for a national outreach effort to all the federations and JCCs, national Jewish leaders, the American Jewish Committee and synagogue movements across the country,” said SCN’s national director, Paul Goldenberg on Tuesday.
The intention of the conference call, he added, was to “share information, facts versus fiction, so they get it from DHS and not the media. We want them to test their plans and if they don’t have them to create plans.” Goldenberg is a former prosecutor of organized crime in Middlesex County, N.J., and former chief of staff in the New Jersey attorney general’s bias crime unit, which was also charged with counterterrorism efforts.
In addition to encouraging “table-top” rehearsal scenarios to prepare for an emergency, SCN will encourage organizations to adopt the “See Something, Say Something” public service campaign used in New York City, and to scrutinize their websites for any sensitive information they may reveal; as well as check the sites’ analytics for visitors from suspicious foreign countries.
“We want them to see if they have been probed by [persons in] those nations of interest in the Middle East, Yemen and other countries,” said Goldenberg. Friday’s announcement of intercepted packages, he said, appears to be the culmination of “six to eight weeks” of chatter about a likely threat from homegrown terrorists or foreign operatives. “For at least three months people have been testifying before Congress and the message as been loud and clear: Don’t let your guard down.”
As of Tuesday, the only direct attack on a Jewish institution in the aftermath of the bomb plot was the vandalism of the Tanenbaum Chabad house at Northwestern University outside Chicago, where a menorah outside the center was damaged. It’s unclear if the incident was prompted by news of the bomb threat.
Pollock said that despite a high terror alert that went out to hundreds of local organizations on Friday, there was no word of any institution that has received an actual dangerous parcel. But he cautioned that officials believe it likely that there are devices other than those intercepted still at large.
“We’re telling everyone to really take steps to screen their mail,” said Pollock, who posts steps for beefing up security on a JCRC blog, jcrcsecurity.blogspot.com. He insisted, “The police do not mind being called to help make assessments [of danger].”
The SCN website, scnus.org, also has comprehensive security tips.
While it doesn’t hurt to give a once-over even to familiar deliveries, Pollock said, the most serious caution should be reserved for items of unknown or unfamiliar origin.
If a suspicious item arrives, “do not disturb it, leave the room” and call authorities, he said.
Pollock, who holds regular seminars for Jewish groups and helps them apply for federal grants to upgrade security, recommends that organizations designate one person who is well trained to keep an eye on deliveries.
“The terrorists are highly intelligent and adaptable,” said Pollock. “This may have been a test to determine how we react.”
Officials now believe, according to an ABC News report, that several innocuous packages containing books and CDs might have been sent in September by the would-be bombers to track their movement as a dry run leading up to last week’s bomb shipment.
But Goldenberg said that despite evidence that the bombs could have been detonated aboard the planes, “the fact that the institutions in Chicago were targeted as of yet has not been ruled out.”
Pollock acknowledged what may be a more pressing concern: The tendency of local, homegrown cells taking their cues from abroad. It was after the carnage of 9/11 that someone began mailing packages containing anthrax powder to government and media offices. The culprit was never found.
“We always caution against copycats,” said Pollock.
The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the United States, Britain, France and Germany had banned cargo shipments from Germany and that Yemeni and U.S. officials were stepping up the hunt for the man believed to be al Qaeda’s bomb expert, 28-year-old Saudi Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri.