Official: Jewish vigilance needed

A guard stands outside a vigilant Chabad for Israelis house in Salvador, Brazil, on the night of Feb. 20, 2008 as Jews in, and outside of, the United States take extra safety precautions. (Chabad.org)

A guard stands outside a vigilant Chabad for Israelis house in Salvador, Brazil, on the night of Feb. 20, 2008 as Jews in, and outside of, the United States take extra safety precautions. (Chabad.org)

NEW YORK (JTA) – In the wake of last week’s assassination of a top Hezbollah official and this week’s firebomb attack at a Jewish community center in suburban Los Angeles, American Jewish groups should be vigilant, according to the head of a Jewish security consultant group.

Although Israel has denied any involvement in Imad Mughniyeh’s death in a car bomb in Damascus last week, radical Muslim leaders, including Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Mohammed Ali Jafari, have threatened to strike back against Israel and Jews abroad.

In response, the Israeli government put its embassies worldwide on alert last week. Then, the FBI issued a warning to law enforcement agencies in the United States that, while there is no specific threat to Jewish organizations, they should be on alert, according to Paul Goldenberg, the national director of the Secure Community Network, a non-profit organization that works as a security adviser for hundreds of Jewish institutions.

“The FBI is telling people that we don’t have anything specific that is an imminent threat, but because of what has recently unfolded and because Hezbollah has a history as being one of the few terrorist organizations that has struck Diaspora Jewish communities,” threatening words from Hezbollah leaders were “taken seriously by the FBI,” said Goldenberg, who has been in daily contact with the FBI and the Office of Homeland Security.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security concurred that there is no immediate threat.

“There is no information to suggest an imminent threat to the homeland,” Laura Keehner told JTA. “We are reminding our partners at all levels of government to remain vigilant and to report anything suspicious to authorities.”

Mughniyeh himself is proof that Hezbollah likes to take its war with Israel beyond the Middle East. Among other attacks abroad, he was the mastermind behind the 2004 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires that killed more than 100 Jews.

Goldenberg said the Jewish community should also be concerned by the attack on the JCC in West Hills, Calif., in suburban Los Angeles, which was hit with two Molotov cocktails early Monday morning. No one was hurt in the incident, which occurred at around 2 A.M. Pacific time and was not noticed until 5:30 p.m.

It is unclear who was behind the attack, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the FBI and local police are investigating surveillance tapes and are looking at the incident as a hate crime.

“The investigation is still on-going and being handled as a hate crime by one of our units,” a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Police Department told JTA.

Officials of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which funds and operates the JCC, do not think there is any relationship between the threats in the wake of the Mughniyeh killing and the JCC attack.

“We would be very upset to see an article linking the attack to that threat; we are not linking it to anything,” the federation’s spokeswoman, Deborah Dragon, told JTA.

In fact, other recent attacks on synagogues in the United States pre-date the Hezbollah threats. Last month, a suspected arson at the Germantown Jewish Centre, a synagogue in Philadelphia, caused extensive damage, forcing its preschool to move off the premises. Two weeks before that incident, swastikas appeared at the synagogue. Local enforcement authorities said they thought the incident was arson but have not released any new information since the Jan. 18 attack.

Goldenberg suggested that the real threat in the wake of the Mughniyeh killing could come from “lone wolf” operatives, individuals who are not affiliated with any terror organization, but who decide to carry out an act of violence because they are enraged by current events.

He pointed specifically to Naveed Afzal Haq, a Pakistani Muslim who shot six employees, killing one, at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle in July of 2006, after becoming upset at Israel’s war in Lebanon.

Afzal Haq reportedly yelled, “I am a Muslim American angry at Israel” before opening fire in the federation’s offices.

“The law enforcement community has a hard time being able to track the lone wolf,” Goldenberg said. “They usually respond to what they see in the media real time, especially if they see something in the media that infuriates them.”

Lone wolf attackers were behind two firebombs at synagogues in Montreal over the past two years, Goldenberg said.

It is not time for the Jewish community to panic, but it should be on alert, he said.

Jewish organizations should take security measures such as checking the identification of everyone who enters their doors; all guests should be accompanied at all times, organizations should have a tested security plan in case of an attack, and those that do not already have them should install closed-circuit televisions and surveillance cameras, he said.

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