Category Archive: Synagogue Security

During Pesach, heightened vigilance is required

Posted on April 10, 2017

EVENT ASSESSMENT

While there are no reports indicating a specific threat to New York City or Jewish institutions during the Passover holiday, religious institutions and religious figures remain attractive targets for multiple terrorist groups—to include al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash Sham(ISIS)—and their adherents. Al-Qa’ida and ISIS have consistently called for attacks against Israel and Jewish interests and recent propaganda from both groups have urged sympathizers to carry out attacks using a range of tactics, including vehicle ramming, edged weapons, improvised explosive devices, and Molotov cocktails.

Terrorist groups and their sympathizers have targeted synagogues and other Jewish locations in the past, both abroad and here in the United States. In December 2016, Austrian authorities disrupted an alleged plot to target a synagogue on the first night of Hanukkah. Two individuals, one of whom was known to authorities, were questioned by police and found to be carrying knives intended for use against the rabbi and his congregants. In May of 2014, ISIL-linked French operative Mehdi Nemmouche opened fire with an assault rifle on a Jewish museum in Brussels, Belgium, resulting in the deaths of four people. In 2016, there were several foiled attack attempts at Jewish institutions in the United States. On April 29, James Gonzalo Medina, a convert to Islam, was arrested by the FBI for attempting to bomb the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center in Florida during services on the seventh day of Passover. The FBI also foiled the plot of Mahin Khan, a self-described “American jihadist,” after he sought to build pipe and pressure cooker bombs.

Khan considered several targets, including the JCC in Tucson, Arizona. He was arrested in July 2016 after he contacted an individual he believed to be an ISIS fighter.

In addition to the threat from foreign terrorist organizations, domestic terrorism increasingly threatens minority groups and institutions in the United States. In February 2017, a South Carolina white supremacist was arrested after an undercover investigation indicated that he was planning to attack minorities in the local area, and had by that point purchased a weapon to do so. The suspect, Benjamin McDowell, allegedly wanted to replicate Dylann Roof’s mass casualty attack and made a number of online threats against a local synagogue. He further made public statements in support of violent white supremacist ideology, according to press reports.

Hate crimes continue to rise around the United States, a number of which have been anti-Semitic in nature. In addition to the desecration of grave sites at cemeteries in Philadelphia and St. Louis, the Anti-Defamation League stated that there have been at least 166 bomb threats made to Jewish institutions across 38 states in the U.S. and three Canadian provinces since January 2017, none of which resulted in the discovery of explosives. On March 23, 2017, 18-year-old Michael Ron David Kadar, a dual US-Israeli citizens, was arrested by Israel on suspicion of making more than 100 bomb threats against JCCs in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand over the past six months. Kadar’s motive remains unknown. In St. Louis, Juan Thompson was arrested for making at least eight threats to Jewish institutions around the country, including the Jewish History Museum in Manhattan, and Jewish schools and a local JCC.

Despite the arrests of two individuals associated with the multiple, unfounded bomb threats, it is probable that other like-minded individuals may seek to carry out similar threats against Jewish locations given the extensive high-profile media coverage these threats received.

The series of anonymous, unfounded bomb threats against multiple targets was likely intended to spread fear, create considerable disruptions to business and people’s lives, and generate financial costs. Bomb threats can also create soft targets; evacuations of large groups of people into the open offer possible attackers a large, predictable target in a desired location vulnerable to a variety of attacks, to include active shooters, improved explosive devices, edged weapons, and vehicle-ramming assaults.

If You See Something, Say Something – 1-888-NYC-SAFE (1-888-692-7233)

To evacuate or not to evacuate? That is the question.

With over 150 hoax bomb threats reported, you should have already have a plan. However, the ongoing threats should serve as a reminder to review  our ongoing guidance, make use of the resources and implement the recommendations, as appropriate.

Should we be worried? At this time the experts conclude that the series of
incidents referencing threats against schools, Jewish facilities and businesses likely do not represent a credible terrorist threat for two reasons:

  1. terrorists’ rarely provide operational insight into their planning, and
  2. the fact that nearly all hoaxes in the United States are conducted by criminal actors or those instigating a nuisance prank.

What are my options? Many security experts question the wisdom of the policy of evacuation. After all, a terrorist could trigger an evacuation of a facility with a simple phone call and then attack the evacuees in multiple ways. On the other hand, someone could place 100 hoax bomb threat calls, but actually plant a bomb on the 101st. (In rebuttal, why make a warning phone call when simply planting the bomb works).

The bottom line is that there is no perfect solution, so all institutions should think about their options and consult with local law enforcement in the absence of the pressure of an actual emergency.

  • Set up a meeting with your local police to review and discuss your options.
  • There is no perfect solution. This is an issue that should be raised at a security committee or board meeting. Remember, your reputation is at stake and your decision may create liability issues.
  • Identify possible options leading to a sheltered evacuation, i.e., one that minimizes the dangers of an attack on evacuees:
    • Is your parking lot a relatively safe area? Could you evacuate there and stand an appropriate distance from your facility? Is there a sheltered path to an adjoining building? Can the local police establish a perimeter to protect the evacuees?
    • Develop appropriate protective measures based on your facility’s characteristics. For example, some facility managers have identified areas (e.g., a pool or gym) that are not cluttered and therefore, easy to check for bombs. If the architecture of the building is engineered so that the building would not likely collapse on those inside, one option is to evacuate people to these safe (or more accurately, safer) places (HT to Steve Levy of ISA).
  • Communicate, early and often. If you decide not to evacuate, some stakeholders will question your judgement and try to second-guess you. A well-planned sheltered evacuation option is easy to explain and to show that your highest priority is the safety of your stakeholders. Whatever you choose, have pre-written messages ready to go should you become a target.

No one can give you a perfect answer. Identify your options, consult with the best people possible and keep your people safe.

Hoax threats can be scary, too.

Should we be worried? At this time the experts conclude that the series of incidents referencing threats against schools, Jewish facilities and businesses likely do not represent a credible terrorist threat for two reasons:

  1. terrorists’ rarely provide operational insight into their planning, and
  2. the fact that nearly all hoaxes in the United States are conducted by criminal actors or those instigating a nuisance prank.

Due to the common occurrence of bomb threats across the country over the last few years, the experts judge malicious terrorism hoaxes such as bogus emails and phoned-in threats, including robo-calls, will almost certainly continue, diverting resources as they create disturbances and send false alarms. However, don’t become blasé. Someone might take advantage of the hoaxes to accomplish a real attack.


What should we be doing? Consider these incidents to be a teaching moment. How would your organization handle such threats.

  1. Know what you should do. Have a bomb threat plan before an incident happens.  For starters, check out DHS’ Bomb Threat Guidance and Introduction to Bomb Threat Management. Add JCRC-NY’s post, Manhattan bomb threat: lessons learned to your reading list. Now is a good time to review, or to think through your own plans. Our own Emergency Planning: Disaster and Crisis Response Systems for Jewish Organizations has a longer chapter discussing the issue.
  2. Train your phone answerers. Everyone answering the phone (including those who might answer) should be taught how to handle a phone threat with this checklist. Have copies of the bomb threat checklist posted nearby.
  3. You have to communicate.
    • First things first. Call 911. Bring in the cavalry…ASAP. Whether you think the incident is real or a hoax, contact the experts and defer to them. Have a system (with primary and backup callers) that ensures that someone calls 911 immediately. Remember, don’t use a cell phone or walkie-talkie in the area of a suspicious package … you might set it off. Get to your landline.
    • Get the word out. Even if your people know what to do (i.e., you’ve conducted bomb scare drills) you have to let them know that they have to do it. Does your building have a public address system? Do you have cell phone numbers for all of your staff so that you can text them with updates? Can you modify your fire alarm system so that it sounds a distinctive signal for a bomb scare?
    • Let your constituencies know what’s happening. Bomb scares create angst and the possibility of physical danger, but there is the potential for risk to your reputation. No one wants a parent to learn about an incident from the media. Have pre-written messages ready for distribution directly to your constituencies (e.g., by text) stressing the steps you’ve taken and that everyone is safe. Have a point of assembly where worried parents can go for additional information from your best staffers. Work with the police to direct people to the appropriate areas. Do not post specifics on social media.  Click here for resources on crisis communication.
  4. Decisions, decisions. Have someone in charge (and a backup). OK, you receive a threat, now what? Certainly, dial 911, but should you evacuate or not (might someone use a bomb threat in order to trigger an evacuation setting up an active shooter or vehicle ramming?)? In reality there is no perfect answer to this question. Someone has to give the order and there will be no time to waste.
  5. Know where to go. If you decide to evacuate out of an abundance of caution you probably don’t want to stand in the street, especially if the weather is bad. Do you have an agreement with a neighboring institution that allows you to bring people into their facility. By doing so you can keep your people warm and dry and out of harms way.
  6. Keep unused parts of your building locked. It’s good practice to have your staff check your facilities daily, looking for something that “Just Doesn’t Look Right”. As they move through the rooms they should lock the doors. Closets and other storage areas should be kept locked. If you develop such procedures and do receive a bomb threat, the bomb sweep of your building can be accomplished faster.
  7. Consult your leadership about security plans. There will always be Monday morning quarterbacks, but a review of your plans at the Board level should empower those making difficult decisions under duress. As they say, “once is not enough.” Revisit security planning and procedures on a regular basis.

How can we know if the threat is real? The intelligence firm, Stratfor, recently published an article: How to distinguish a bomb threat from a bomb warning. The experts suggest some other possible indicators of a hoax:

  • Most genuine bombers wouldn’t specify the exact timing and target of an attack (since providing that information would jeopardize the success of an event);
  • Most genuine bombers wouldn’t use threats with complex scenarios involving chemical weapons or other advanced capabilities, or cite geographically dispersed targets; and
  • Most genuine bombers wouldn’t use threats involving large numbers of operatives.

Remember, there are no guarantees in security. You will have to weigh the options and make the best decisions possible. If you’ve thought about the options and have made decisions ahead of time, the odds of making the right decision increase dramatically.

Awareness 101: When it “Just doesn’t look right”

Regularly check around your facility for anything that "Just doesn't look right"

Regularly check around your facility for anything that “Just doesn’t look right”. Shown is a car parked in a “No Parking” zone with strange wires.

Experts note that terrorist attacks don’t appear out of thin air. In virtually every situation (and that includes active shooter events) an attacker practices “pre-operational surveillance.” More mundanely, they “case the joint” or just show up to observe, orient themselves to the situation and to decide how they will act during their attack. When suspect behavior is reported (1-888-NYC-SAFE) it can be investigated and an attack can be interrupted.

Determining that it “Just doesn’t look right”

The NYPD Intelligence Bureau just released some excellent guidance. Its primary focus is to help detect suspicious signs along special event routes (e.g., parades) or areas designated for large-scale public gatherings (e.g., demonstrations, celebrations, street fairs, etc.), but can apply to houses of worship, schools, community centers and other gathering points. The following examples of activity, though not fully inclusive, may be of possible concern to law enforcement (Click here for a PDF of the NYPD Indicators of Terrorist Activity guidance):

  • The appearance of a suspicious vehicle (including bicycles with a storage basket; motorcycles; utility storage boxes, etc.) parked near the area designated for the event to take place. Items left for a protracted period of time and disregarded.
  • Actions by an individual that suggest the pre-event videotaping or still photography of the route or location (and surrounding area) for no apparent reason (i.e., no aesthetic value). Sketching of the area e.g., cross streets, access streets into and out of the area.
  • Any request to videotape from a roof or a vacant unit/apartment overlooking the event venue.
  • The sudden appearance of a new street vendor in an area adjacent to the event route, the venue’s access doors, or gathering location.
  • Unclaimed or suspicious packages/objects found along the special event route/location.
  • Individuals sitting or standing at a bus stop and not boarding a bus; Individuals sitting at a particular location (e.g., park bench) at the same time each day for numerous days.
  • The very. recent placement of a garbage can, postal mailbox, newspaper kiosk or other stationary object along the special event route/location.
  • Recent attempts by unknown individuals to gain access to your building’s roof overlooking the parade route/special event location/venue.
  • Inquiries about short-term rental of an apartment or space above your store/business – or in your residential complex — that also happens to offer a view of a parade route or special event location. (Terrorist operatives will often cohabitate to facilitate operational planning.Additionally, they may attempt to position themselves in an area that will ease their surveillance of potential targets.)
  • Large plastic drums being stored inside a building (commercial or residential space).
  • Reports of small fires or smoke conditions being reported from a particular store or apartment.
  • Suspicious inquiries by unknown individuals regarding:
    • The security measures anticipated for the event (e.g., extensive questioning as to
      the searching of backpacks, stopping of vehicles, etc.)
    • The seating of public officials, dignitaries, or other VIPs at an event.

Attacks on Jews in the U.S. 1969-2016

From: Terrorist Incidents and Attacks Against Jews and Israelis in the United States, 1969-2016, Community Security Service

From: Terrorist Incidents and Attacks Against Jews and Israelis in the United States, 1969-2016, Community Security Service.

Take a look at the important new CSS publication, Terrorist Incidents and Attacks Against Jews and Israelis in the United States, 1969-2016by our talented, good friend, Yehudit Barsky, with a forward by another friend, Mitchell D. Silber. The publication supplements the JCRC’s own Selective Threat Scan which was designed to assist Nonprofit Security Grant Program applicants complete the “Threat” and “Consequences” sections of the Investment Justification.

Here’s the Executive Summary of the document which aligns with JCRC’s ongoing advice:

It is vital that the American Jewish community, together with our law enforcement partners, learn the lessons of the past, understand the nature of the challenges arrayed against it, and take the proper precautions to ensure that violent acts against Jews and Jewish institutions can be prevented in the future.

  • Jewish targets often serve as precursors to larger attacks: Perpetrators of well-known larger attacks, such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, were first involved in anti-Jewish incidents.
  • Awareness is critical: In many of these incidents, perpetrators conducted pre-operational surveillance. Training and engagement of community members to detect suspicious activity is thus essential.
  • A need to invest in community security infrastructure: The Jewish community can ill afford passivity and apathy against security threats. The community should broaden its understanding of what effective security entails, and invest in initiatives that provide tangible results. Foremost amongst these strategies is ensuring community members have the training and capacity to assist in securing their own communities, and partnering more closely with law enforcement agencies.

Unfortunately, much as we do not care to admit it to ourselves, the threats are real; there have been too many incidents to deny that. Now in the second decade of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in an era where those who promote anti-Jewish rhetoric and instigation have the technical tools to reach a broader audience in less time than ever before. In fact, as recently as March 2016, the Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) publicly encouraged its followers to attack Jews and their allies, “wherever they find them.”

It is vital that the American Jewish community, together with our law enforcement partners, learn the lessons of the past, understand the nature of the challenges arrayed against it, and take the proper precautions to ensure that violent acts against Jews and Jewish institutions can be prevented in the future.

Click here for the full report.