A 19-year-old Jewish resident of Israel with both American and Israeli citizenship is suspected of being behind a host of fake bomb threats directed at Jewish institutions and other targets worldwide.
The cybercrimes unit of the Israel Police made the arrest on Thursday after receiving intelligence from the FBI and other foreign agencies. Police seized computers and other items investigators say helped the suspect evade detection.
The suspect’s father was also arrested, and a judge ordered both of them to remain in custody for eight additional days.
The suspect has lived in Israel many years. The army refused to draft him after finding him unfit for service. The suspect's motive is unknown, but police accuse him of hundreds of incidents involving threats to institutions around the world, including Israel, over a period of two or three years.
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Some five computers were confiscated as well as other equipment, including antennas he used to access other people's networks and to commit the alleged crimes undetected. This initially threw off the police and it led them to question others whose networks were used. Eventually, the police created a profile of the suspect and the technology to find him. Police say that he attempted to grab the gun of an officer who came to his home to arrest him.
The suspect is not cooperating with police and has refused to grant permission to have his computers searched.
Upon searching his computer, a bitcoin account was discovered, and it’s being examined whether the suspect received payment for some of the calls he allegedly made.
He is said to have been home-schooled by his parents and never to have been educated outside the home.
Police are accusing the suspect of extortion through threats and of false reporting spreading panic. The incidents include alleged calls placed to shopping malls, airports and various Jewish institutions. Investigators are also attempting to determine if the suspect received any money in connection with of the threats attributed to him.
The police also detained his father for questioning.
Attorney Galit Bash, who represents the suspect, said that "this is a young man without a criminal record who from a young age suffers from severe medical problems. There is concern that his medical condition affects his cognitive functioning.
"Therefore, we asked the court to order that the young man be referred for a medical examination. The court accepted our claims and instructed the police to examine the young man's medical condition."
The suspect was brought before Judge Amit Michles, who said that "I believe there is reasonable suspicion to link the suspect to actions attributed to him.
"The main thing is that a reasonable suspicion already exists at this stage that convincingly links the suspect to the calls that have been attributed to him, known as 'swats,' to different institutions around the world, some of which have led to panic."
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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Thursday the arrest in Israel reflected the government's determination not to tolerate hate crimes.
"The Department of Justice is committed to protecting the civil rights of all Americans, and we will not tolerate the targeting of any community in this country on the basis of their religious beliefs," Sessions said in a statement. "I commend the FBI and Israeli National Police for their outstanding work on this case."
JCC Association of North America president and CEO Doron Krakow also responded to the developments.
“On behalf of the JCC Association of North America and JCCs across the continent, we are gratified by the progress in this investigation, and applaud the commitment and leadership of the FBI and other federal agencies, Israeli law enforcement, and local law enforcement across the United States and Canada.
“We are troubled to learn that the individual suspected of making these threats against Jewish Community Centers, which play a central role in the Jewish community, as well as serve as inclusive and welcoming places for all – is reportedly Jewish," he said.
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt also responded to the arrest.
"While the details of this crime remain unclear, the impact of this individual’s actions is crystal clear: These were acts of anti-Semitism. These threats targeted Jewish institutions, were calculated to sow fear and anxiety, and put the entire Jewish community on high alert."
Last month, St. Louis native Juan Thompson, a former reporter, was arrested for his role in a number of bomb threats against Jewish centers, allegedly carried out as part of an ongoing attempt to shame his former girlfriend.
The first incident attributed to the Israeli suspect is a bomb threat that a Jewish institution in New Zealand received in 2016. Police in New Zealand identified the IP address as originating from Israel. A similar incident occurred in Australia, and Israel was also identified as the source.
The Israel Police initially struggled to locate the suspect but then received several reports of threats from 16 Jewish centers in nine U.S. states – Florida, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Tennessee, Georgia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and North Carolina. The FBI began investigating. Delta Airlines also received a threat about a bomb on one of its planes, causing it to halt flights to check their aircraft and forcing a plane already in the air to land.
The FBI handed over the information to the Israel Police after finding that these threats too had originated from Israel. Using innovative technology, the police were able to identify the suspect's home.
The Rishon Letzion Magistrate's Court is expected to extend his custody on Thursday.
An audio of one of the calls was obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in which the caller stated:
"It’s a C-4 bomb with a lot of shrapnel, surrounded by a bag (inaudible). In a short time, a large number of Jews are going to be slaughtered. Their heads are going to [sic] blown off from the shrapnel. There’s a lot of shrapnel. There’s going to be a bloodbath that’s going to take place in a short time. I think I told you enough. I must go."
Reuters contributed to this report.
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