As wave after wave of bomb threats began terrorizing Jewish Community Centers across the United States in early 2017, the debate raging between the left and right was whether the culprits were neo-Nazi white supremacists, newly emboldened in the Trump era, or whether they were Israel- and Jew-hating Muslim terrorists, doing what they could to sow fear in their enemies.
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Few dreamed that the alleged source of the terror would be found in the bedroom of a deeply disturbed, socially isolated teenager in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon. Because some of the alleged crimes took place when he was a minor, it is illegal in Israel to publish the name of the young man – a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen who moved to Israel at a young age, and in recent years seemingly spent his days and nights spreading fear and terror around the world.
The sheer number of crimes included in the list of indictments in Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court on Monday is shocking. Bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers, it turns out, was merely the tip of the iceberg when it came to his activities, which allegedly spanned three years, at least 10 U.S. states and a number of countries.
Although the U.S. and Israeli authorities cooperated closely in the investigation that led to the youth’s arrest, a battle over where he will be prosecuted appears to be brewing. Israel’s Justice Ministry is planning to refuse a U.S. request to extradite him to the United States to face charges there, arguing that he should be tried in Israel. If Israel refuses, it would represent a break in policy, because since the 1990s it has agreed to extraditions with the proviso that, once sentenced, Israelis convicted overseas can serve out potential jail terms in an Israeli prison.
By the time the Israeli indictments had taken place on Monday, the youth had already been charged with crimes in two U.S. states – Georgia and Florida. If the details of his Israeli indictment are accurate, at least eight more states have grounds to follow suit, and he could also potentially be charged in Canada, France, Switzerland and Australia.
As expected, the indictments detailed his bomb threats against more than 2,000 institutions. His targets included airports, airlines, police stations, along with the threats to the JCCs and Jewish schools that put his actions on the political agenda, spiraling into controversy regarding President Donald Trump’s low-key reaction to the threats.
Monday’s indictments opened a window on new, disturbing aspects of his alleged activities, with charges including extortion threats, assaulting a police officer, drug trafficking and possession of child pornography.
According to the Justice Ministry, the defendant made 142 threats involving air travel - to airports, airlines and police stations. In phone calls he would warn that explosive devices were hidden on certain flights, or that a shooting attack would occur on one of them. In one case, the indictment says, such a threat was made involving an El Al plane that was already en route to Israel, causing the deployment of French and Swiss fighter jets to escort and supervise the aircraft, and intercept it in order to prevent a fiery crash that could harm the public below.
In another case, in a call to a Canadian airport the defendant threatened a flight that was already in the air. As a result, the plane was diverted to another airport and an immediate evacuation took place, with panicked passengers using the emergency slides to exit the plane.
The indictment also tells of a threat to a Virgin Australia flight, causing the plane to be diverted to another airport and to dump eight tons of fuel over the ocean before landing. In another instance, he allegedly targeted a plane carrying NBA basketball team the Boston Celtics to a game.
His list of alleged targets over the three years was diverse. He threatened the Israeli consulate in Miami, which was evacuated. His threats also triggered the evacuation of a hospital in New Jersey, pulling patients out of their sick beds. In 48 cases, the indictment says, he directed various threats to police stations, falsely claiming that he held small children or family members as hostages at a certain address and would shoot them in the head, causing police to carry out armed raids at places where nothing was happening, endangering lives.
The indictments also revealed that the allegations went beyond mere threats and crossed the line into extortion.
Ernesto Lopez, a Republican state senator in Delaware, was targeted in what appears to be payback for his public condemnation of the JCC threats. According to the indictment, the youth called Lopez, demanding that he retract his comments and that if he failed to do so, he would fine him in bitcoin every 72 hours. If Lopez refused to pay, he would be then incriminated on the internet. When the politician did not accede to demands, the suspect ordered drugs online and sent them to Lopez’s home in order to incriminate him, threatening to publish pictures attesting to the fact that he had drugs in his house.
Thus far, no motive for the youth's alleged activities has been forthcoming either by law enforcement, his defense team or his family. For now, the details of his alleged crimes, taken together, paint a picture of a twisted desire to feel powerful by creating maximum mayhem, together with a profit motive.
The young man allegedly turned his dangerous hobby into a business, offering his services through the darknet: he would intimidate, extort and threaten for hire. He was paid in bitcoin (an untraceable virtual currency) and maintained a price list, with prices varying depending on the target his customers wanted threatened - an airport, school or police station all had different prices. The indictment says that, at one point, the youth hired two subcontractors to carry out some of the threat talks. Israeli law enforcement officials have said he possessed bitcoin worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Anticipating the damning indictment, the youth’s lawyers and parents have been making their case, in both Israeli and U.S. media, of an autistic and mentally ill young man with a brain tumor who should not be held responsible for his actions.
If the information described in Monday’s indictment is accurate, it will be difficult for the young man’s attorneys to argue that his crimes were in any way impulsive and uncontrollable. According to the evidence described in his indictment, not only did he plan them meticulously, but he kept detailed records of their execution, documenting his threats on his home computers – carefully organized by dates and types of targets – as well as keeping track of media coverage of their fallout.
Also pointing to his ability to plan and organize crimes is the fact he was able to remain undetected for so long. Using complex technology, he was allegedly able to disguise his voice and hide the source of the phone calls. He used his own antenna to piggyback onto other people’s internet routers and transfer his internet footprint to foreign computers, in order to hide his location.