A former Israeli paratrooper now working for the NYPD in Tel Aviv told Jewish leaders here on Monday that Hamas splinter groups are a growing security threat, struggling to upset a delicate ceasefire with Israel.
“In the Gaza Strip, we have seen the creation of ex-Hamas splinter groups who feel that Hamas has gotten soft in their approach to the Israeli occupation,” said Det. Charlie Benaim at police headquarters, where several hundred Jewish community leaders gathered for the department’s annual pre-High Holy Days security briefing. “[They] now seek a more violent and consistent form of response.”
He said such groups had become known as Jaljalat, Arabic for echoes of thunder.
“As Hamas tries to enforce the ‘no rockets toward Israel’ law, these groups do attempt to launch rockets into southern Israel,” said the Jerusalem native.
The briefing took place hours after the Joint Terrorism Task Force, comprised of police and federal agents, raided two apartments in Queens, occupied by men of Afghan descent. Officials said a suspected associate of al Qaeda had visited the apartments, but no arrests were made. Computers and phones, but no weapons, were seized, authorities said.
There was no mention at the briefing of the raid, which was disclosed to the media later in the day.
Neither Benaim nor Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, in his remarks, gave any indication of an imminent threat in New York.
But another counterterrorism detective, Ira Weiss, discussed recent terror targets around the world, including a Chabad center in Mumbai, India last November, and said “The target [of extremists] initially was Israel, but we see now that it is blurred and there is no distinction between Israel and Jews.”
Weiss, who has lived in Israel and is an IDF veteran, pointed out that two guards at Iran’s UN Mission here had been sent home as “persona non grata” when they were found to have photographed potential targets. That incident happened in 2004.
Weiss was part of a delegation last summer to Buenos Aires to probe the 1992 and 1994 bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center there, which have been tied to Iran.
At the same briefing last year, an NYPD intelligence analyst said the department was trying to assess whether a strike against Iran’s nuclear weapon program by the U.S. or Israel might produce a response by pro-Iran loyalists in New York.
Weiss on Monday said an increasing area of interest for counterterrorism forces was the “tri-border area” in South America of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, where as many as 20,000 Shia Muslims are believed to live.
Citing Argentine intelligence officials, who have indicted Iranian operatives for the Buenos Aires bombings, Weiss said it is likely that the attacks were made possible by reconnaissance and logistical support from “locals who became involved prior to the operatives ever coming into the country.”
Weiss noted that Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, the man indicted by Argentina as mastermind of the 1994 AMIA community center bombing, which killed 85 people, had recently been named defense minister of Iran by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Benaim, 42, who earned a graduate degree in forensic psychology at John Jay Criminal College here before joining the NYPD, has been stationed in Tel Aviv since Sept. 2007, and regularly visits the scene of terror attacks all over Israel to report back to the NYPD’s intelligence unit on weapons used, casualties, modus operandi and other details.
“After each event I seek out the incident commander and receive important information, to make sure its gets shared with the NYPD,” he said. “I’m the face of the NYPD in Israel.”
The 13 major attacks that have occurred since his arrival, he said, suggest a trend. “There has been a shift from suicide bombings to unconventional attacks, such as shootings, stabbings of soldiers at checkpoints and the transforming of construction vehicles into weapons,” said Benaim, who speaks with only a trace of an Israeli accent. “One successful attack leads to another.”
The most recent event he cited was a foiled plot to assassinate Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabriel Ashkenazi two weeks ago in which an Israeli man was spotted on surveillance video of Hezbollah operatives. The Israeli man frequented the same gym as Askenazi and has been charged in the plot, he said, adding that it was believed to be part of a campaign to avenge the killing of Hezbollah leader Imed Mugniyeh in Lebanon a year ago, for which Israel has denied responsibility.
Benaim is one of 11 New York detectives working abroad as liaisons to foreign law enforcement. The others are in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Lyon and Paris, France; London, Madrid, Toronto, Montreal, Singapore and Santo Domingo.
Kelly said the New York Police Foundation, an independent, nonprofit organization, funds the living expenses of the detectives abroad.
Other than a brief mention of the sting operation that led to the arrests of four men in an alleged bombing plot against two Riverdale synagogues last spring, there was no mention of local security issues.
David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said surveillance and patrols in Jewish areas had been increased for the holidays, which begin with Rosh HaShanah on Friday.
“Out of an abundance of caution Commissioner Kelly — along with police officials in Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester — ordered local commanding officers to give synagogues and other Jewish institutions a heightened level of coverage,” said Pollock.
“What we saw in yesterday’s meeting were but two examples of the NYPD’s exemplary work around the world: investigating potential threats and learning the best practices to counter those threats.”
The JCRC has posted security tips for synagogues and other institutions online at jcrcny.org.
Kelly said the timing of the holidays this year presented a manpower challenge to the department, because the season coincides with the opening of the United Nations General Assembly this Monday.
He noted that among the world figures visiting the world body this year were leaders of Iran, Iraq and, for the first time, Libya.
“This is a particularly sensitive time,” said Kelly. “But we and New York have always looked at ourselves as an international city, and in the next two weeks it becomes even more so.”