A fugitive terrorist’s boast that Brooklyn Jewish neighborhoods were targeted for attack as far back as 1993 has caused shockwaves here, with a major group issuing a security alert and politicians calling for public funds to beef up security at schools.
"People are confident but concerned," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "There is no panic, but people know they have to be more careful, there have to be security measures."
Concern spread after Abdul Rahman Yasin, a suspect in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, said in a "60 Minutes" interview that aired Sunday that he and his cohorts originally planned to attack Jews in Brooklyn, later switching to the Twin Towers because they believed many Jews worked there. He also said that the al Qaeda terror network would "continue to hit Americans, Jews and other targets."
As a result, the Jewish Community Relations Council on Monday issued an alert calling on Jewish institutions throughout New York City to assess and improve their security. The JCRC noted that the security status determined by the U.S. Office of Homeland Security on Monday was "yellow," signaling an elevated-significant risk of terrorist attack.
While some speculated privately that Yasin’s declaration may have been propaganda intended simply to frighten, JCRC executive vice president Michael Miller said "we need to take everything that is being said seriously within the framework of a general threat."
Miller said the JCRC was in regular communication with the New York Police Department and the state’s Office of Public Security to monitor the situation. The security alert calls on recipients to:
Report any unusual activity to the NYPD’s hot-line, (888) NYC-SAFE.
Control access to buildings and assess whether to search bags.
Develop contingency plans to handle threats.
Designate a liaison to keep in touch with local precincts and keep them informed of services and activities.
Hoenlein said his organization and a host of others were issued a warning by the FBI several months ago based on documents retrieved from al Qaeda operatives that listed Jewish organizations, some real, some nonexistent.
"There was no basis for immediate concern," said Hoenlein, "but they were obligated to notify the organizations."
Last week, the Mossad warned that Jewish sites around the world were at increased risk of being targeted by terrorists. The Israeli intelligence service cited information gathered from terrorists’ arrests in Europe.
Meanwhile, state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is exploring ways to provide funding to increase security at yeshivas and other private and parochial schools.
"He is very anxious to be able to do something," said Judy Rapfogel, Silver’s chief of staff. "There is not a lot of money out there."
Rapfogel said a meeting with security officials of the Board of Education would explore options such as hiring a consultant to evaluate security at private institutions and make recommendations, or purchase minor surveillance equipment for those schools without it.
Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind approached Silver and the chair of the Assembly committee on education, Steven Sanders of Manhattan, about school security after an informal survey showed that institutions could be vulnerable.
"The leaders of our country have said it’s not if but when," said Hikind, who represents Borough Park and Flatbush. "I can’t imagine that when the bad guys sit back and plot who to attack, the Jews are not high on the list."
While the Jewish community has been on high alert in the past following Middle East flare-ups and events closer to home, such as the deadly 1994 attack on a van full of chasidim on the Brooklyn Bridge, the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the subsequent war on terrorism and the national focus on security all have added a new dimension to the latest warnings.
The American Jewish Committee’s expert on terrorism, Yehudit Barsky, says there is every reason to take the warnings seriously.
"During the World Trade Center trial in 1993, it also came out that they were planning to attack Jewish targets," said Barsky. "One of the places that was mentioned is the diamond exchange [on 47th Street in Manhattan]. There has also been a reassessment of operations of [Osama] bin Laden in this country."
Barsky said there is evidence that the first act of terrorism carried out on American soil linked to bin Laden and his al Qaeda network was the November 1990 assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane at a Midtown hotel.
"ìThe first time around, the first time they were plotting to do something, it was against a Jewish target," she said.
Barsky believes the murder of Rabbi Kahane was a missed opportunity for investigators to foretell the plotting of anti-American Islamic extremists.
"If they had investigated more fully at the time, they would have been able to get a better understanding about what these organizations believed and what they were planning," said Barsky. "There were boxes of material taken from [assassin El Sayid] Nosair’s apartment that were never translated from Arabic. The people who were visiting him in prison later carried out the  World Trade Center bombing."
It is now believed that a central figure in those two incidents, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, has ties to bin Laden, said Barsky, who noted that violence against Jews is a key component of militant Islamic ideology.
"They believe essentially that Jews must be destroyed in order to bring about a cataclysmic war and the end of days," he said. "Muslim radicals have an interpretation that does not come from the Koran, that the end of days will not come until Muslims fight Jews and then there will be supernatural times, and that Jews are agents of evil and children of Satan."
Jews can no longer be complacent about terror warnings and should pay close heed to warnings issued by federal authorities, Barsky added.
"You have an attitude that it’s something you hear about in the news that happens to other people. But there have already been a number of cases in New York against Jews," he said. "The Kahane murder, the Brooklyn Bridge shooting … and there are other examples outside the U.S. [such as] attacks on synagogues in France. We need to learn from these things and be prepared."
To sum up the anxiety, Hikind said a panic had been caused in Borough Park earlier this week when someone reported a box of explosives on 16th Avenue. It turned out to be a discarded dummy grenade.
"Things like this make people very nervous," he said.