Jewish and Israeli institutions around the world are shoring up security this week as terrorism experts warn of a near-certain attack to avenge the killing of a top Hezbollah leader in Syria on Feb. 13.
And while the threat of an attack in New York is considered low, police and community officials are taking precautions.
Concern was increased on Monday when a firebomb was tossed at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles, although no one was hurt and the facility was not damaged.
“This is an opportunity to review procedures and increase vigilance,” said David Pollock, associate director in charge of security issues for the Jewish Community Relations Council here. He said an e-mail alert had gone out to more than 2,500 recipients, most of them at local Jewish institutions, noting that both the Israeli government and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warn of revenge attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets.
“They are concerned about the AMIA model,” he said, referring to the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. Argentine prosecutors charged involvement by Iran and Hezbollah, but no one has ever stood trial for the crime.
A spokesman for the New York Police Department on Tuesday said security had been increased at the Israeli Consulate and the Israeli Mission to the United Nations here, as well as the John F. Kennedy International Airport terminal of El Al, Israel’s major air carrier.
“The NYPD increased coverage at the Israeli Consulate and its Mission to the UN as a result [of the assassination], and in consultation with the Port Authority [of New York & New Jersey], at El Al,” said Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne. “The police department reviews its counterterrorism posture daily based on intelligence domestically and from around the world.”
Although no one has claimed responsibility for the death of Imad Fayez Mugniyeh, Israel is widely considered to be involved, notwithstanding Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s direct denial of his country’s involvement, which is considered unusual in such cases.
Other theories include assassination by rival terror leaders or an accidental detonation while transporting a bomb, or that the bomb was meant for someone else.
Terrorism experts agree that there will be an eventual revenge attack but differ on the likelihood of an attack on U.S. soil.
“I’m not sure about attacks in the U.S., but remember that Hezbollah is in South America big time,” said Shoshana Bryen of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. She noted that Mugniyeh was believed responsible for two of the deadliest terror attacks of the 1990s, the AMIA attack and an earlier one at the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29 people. Hundreds more were injured in the two blasts.
Steven Emerson, a pro-Israel journalist who has written and lectured extensively on global terrorism, said that while Hezbollah and sympathetic organizations “have the capability of striking anywhere they want … I don’t think there is an incentive to take on the U.S. or cause any collateral damage to the U.S.”
Not wanting to sacrifice its sleeper cells here at this time, Emerson said, Mugniyeh loyalists may instead choose to strike against “some countries where they view attacks on Jewish civilian targets as separate from attacks against their own nationals,” such as various European countries or Arab states such as Morocco that have Israeli trade missions or other official Israeli offices.
“My hunch is that they are not going to strike in the U.S.,” said Emerson.
In the immediate aftermath of Mugniyeh’s death, several commentators openly questioned whether Israel, if it was responsible, had considered the ramifications on Jews in the diaspora.
“Few would deny that Mr. Mugniyeh, who had the blood of many hundreds of Americans and Israelis … on his hands, deserved the violent death that befell him,” wrote Yediot Achronot correspondent Ronen Bergman in an op-ed in Monday’s New York Times. “But this act of combined vengeance, punishment and pre-emption might extract a far greater cost in the future.”
Bergman cited recent statements by the American director of national intelligence warning about Hezbollah sleeper cells in the United States.
And in Haaretz on Tuesday, columnist Anshel Pfeffer asked, in the event Israel killed Mugniyeh, “Was the advent of a murderous attack on Diaspora Jews part of the considerations that guided the Israeli leadership in deciding to OK the hit?”
But Pfeffer focused his concern on Jews in places like Argentina and Iran, not the U.S. He concludes, however, that such concerns “cannot be the supreme consideration, when measured against a clear Israeli security interest.”
In an article distributed via JTA, Yehudit Barsky, a terrorism analyst for the American Jewish Committee, noted that the bombing of the embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 occurred just weeks after Israel assassinated a Hezbollah leader, Abbas Musawi.
“Clearly, Hezbollah will not let Mugniyeh’s assassination pass without attempting a display of its own capability for revenge,” writes Barsky. “The question is not if, but when.”
In an interview from Israel Tuesday, Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in what has become a standard refrain, said there were “no specific threats” of attacks on any Jewish targets in the United States, but “this is a case for heightened alert. We have to be careful that people aren’t told nothing will happen and then, if God forbid, something happens it will be too late.”
The Conference runs the Secure Community Network, which continuously updates Jewish groups on possible threats.
United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for North American federations that has lobbied the government to provide funding for security upgrades at Jewish facilities around the country, has discussed the risk of an attack with members of Congress and the Department of Homeland Security , said vice president William Daroff.
“These warnings are further evidence of the risk faced by the non-profit sector generally, and the Jewish community in particular, in the post-9/11 environment,” said Daroff.
Pollock of the JCRC noted that a taped revenge threat by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah “specifically targeted Israeli entities.” Still, he said there was cause for concern that “a Hezbollah affiliate or homegrown terrorists might choose to strike a Jewish target.”
Pollock noted a recent study by the NYPD on homegrown terrorists, who have recently targeted Fort Dix in New Jersey, a Manhattan transit hub during the 2004 Republican National Convention here and the fuel supply at Kennedy Airport.
“The idea of homegrown terrorists is an increasing problem in the U.S. and could be more of a problem than people being planted from overseas groups,” Pollock said “Many of these groups have an anti-Semitic bent, and we can never predict when they might use an excuse to target a Jewish institution.”
Washington correspondent James D. Besser contributed to this report.