Jewish institutions and synagogues in New York City were being warned to boost their security in light of last week’s U.S. attacks on suspected terrorist sites in the Sudan and Afghanistan, while Israeli officials in Jerusalem are viewing the current crisis as part of a continuum of preparedness.
In New York, the Jewish Community Relations Council distributed a warning memo, one day after the U.S. strikes, to hundreds of synagogues and organizations that might be targeted by Islamic terrorists looking for revenge for the American missile attack on Sudan and Afghanistan. The U.S. action was in response to the massive twin terrorist bombings at American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
JCRC executive vice president Michael Miller stressed that there was no specific information about retaliatory attacks against Jews prompting this week’s security alert.
“Nonetheless, we have circulated an alert to Jewish organization leaderships to follow standard precautions,” said Miller, who keeps in close contact with City Hall, the New York Police Department and the FBI regarding terrorist threats, such as last year’s potential Brooklyn subway bombing by a Palestinian terrorist and the Empire State Building shooting in 1997.
But Miller said the latest alert is different from past warnings because it is responding to a fatwa, or religious decree, issued against Americans by Osama bin Laden, the Saudi expatriate who allegedly is behind a series of terrorist attacks in the U.S.
In recent days bin Laden supporters have vowed retaliation against the U.S. and its citizens for the bombing of his base of operations in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan that Clinton administration officials contend was manufacturing the deadly chemical weapon VX.
“The unpredictability of this brand of terror is what’s so disturbing.” said Miller.
Terrorism expert Harvey Kushner, chairman of the criminal justice department at Long Island University, concurred.
“It’s a new terrorism,” said Kushner, author of the forthcoming book “Terrorism in America” (Charles Thomas Publishing).
He said while there have been more than 50 fatwas issued against the U.S. in recent years, “This is the most significant, and from one who has the capability of delivering,” Kushner said of bin Laden, whose group is known as the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders.
Miller said the security alert was faxed to hundreds of metropolitan-area Jewish groups. He said it would be maintained throughout the High Holy Days, which start Sept. 20.
The Israeli Consulate, the headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League, and Temple Emanuel, the cavernous Fifth Avenue Reform synagogue, are among the buildings being given extra scrutiny by the FBI and NYPD, security experts told The Jewish Week.
Jewish officials conceded they had yet to hear condemnation of the fatwa from New York’s Islamic community leaders.
“I haven’t seen them, I haven’t heard them,” said one official. “You’re not going to find them.”
But Omar Ashmawy, executive director of the Muslim Coalition, a moderate Islamic advocacy group in Washington, criticized the recent terrorist acts being pinned on bin Laden. Ashmawy said many Islamic leaders refrain from speaking out publicly against the killing of innocents, fearing reprisal from fundamentalist forces in their own community.
“Most Muslims are terrified,” he said. “Extremists in Islam are an infinitesimal minority when put up against the majority. However, they are willing to kill for what they believe. That will understandably prevent many Muslims who believe in what Islam teaches from speaking out and advocating those teachings.”
Ashmawy, who participates in interfaith dialogues and himself has been threatened by extremists, says the actions of bin Laden show he is “clearly misinformed about the teachings of Islam, or choosing not to adhere to them. Islam in its most basic fundamental form is clearly against acts of terrorism.”
Officials of national Jewish organizations based in New York said they are taking added security precautions, though they preferred not to elaborate on details.
The alert declares the need for continuous attention to security details and advises that “security upgrading be implemented within your facilities and that a heightened sense of awareness be given to suspicious persons, packages or items your security personnel or other employees may come across.”
Terror expert Kushner said bin Laden is “out to get Jews and obviously Christians as well [but] the United States is the focus.”
Asked if America is prepared for this brand of religious-based terrorism, Kushner said, “No.” He noted that Israel has been very astute in trying to combat bombing attacks but “even they can’t deal with it.”
In Jerusalem, Israelis haven’t allowed the threat of terrorist attacks to dampen their last week of summer vacation. Despite warnings by terror experts that Israel could soon be the target of Islamic fundamentalists bent on retaliation for the American bombings, life appears to be business as usual.
If the relatively small number of soldiers and border police patrolling the streets is any indication, the government has not stepped up its security precautions in residential areas. It has, however, beefed up security at the nation’s three commercial airports, a move that has caused lengthy delays for anyone trying to enter or leave the country.
In downtown Jerusalem this week, the cafes and shops were packed with vacationers, locals and American yeshiva students. With school set to start Tuesday, many families spent time this week purchasing books, knapsacks and school supplies.
Officials have adamantly denied that the country is on a heightened state of alert, pointing out that the threat of terrorism did not begin with bin Laden.
“We are always on a heightened state of alert due to the fact that we are always the target of Middle East terrorist groups,” David Bar Illan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s adviser, told The Jewish Week.
A source with the Israel Defense Force said that the threat of retaliatory attacks “is an American problem.” Pressed on whether Israel could also be targeted, the source said, “Unfortunately, we have to deal with this throughout the year. We have a lots of threats and we’re taking this one seriously — but no more seriously than any other threats.”
Boaz Ganor, director of the Herzliya-based International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, warned that retaliatory strikes are very likely, and that Israel should be on its guard.
According to Islamic radicals, Ganor said, the U.S. “is the Western apparatus to conquer Muslim holy places in the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia and in the [Persian] Gulf. On the other hand, Israel is a part of this in their view, and they’ve decided that Israel has a right to be a target.”
Noting that Hamas leader Sheik Yassin vowed last week to step up the organization’s terror campaign in the wake of the U.S. missile strikes, Ganor said, “You can’t disregard this warning.”
Although ordinary Israelis are certainly aware of this and other warnings, they have not let it preoccupy them.
“I’m worried about terrorism in general, but this is no different than any other threat,” said Tal Jacobi, 21, a stationery-store clerk. “When I watch TV and see people threatening Israel, it seems far away, as if there’s no connection to us. Maybe I’ve just gotten used to it.”
Manhattan native Avi Jorish, a graduate student at the Hebrew University, wasn’t losing any sleep either. “I don’t think there’s any cause for concern,” he said. “I think this is all just a bunch of serious press hype in the States.”
Looking down the street, where families strolled and shoppers shopped, he said, “No one is paying attention.”
- Department of Justice
- City Hall
- executive vice president
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Boaz Ganor
- Harvey Kushner
- Omar Ashmawy
- Avi Jorish
- Long Island University
- Charles Thomas Publishing
- bin Laden
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
- New York
- Michael Miller
- Social Issues
- Michele Chabin
- Empire State Building