The family of the American-Israeli teenager suspected of making more than 100 fake bomb threats against North American Jewish community centers and institutions from his home in southern Israel has gone public in an apparent effort to spark sympathy for his plight.
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The family is worried the U.S. government will seek extradition of their son, according to Israel’s Channel 2 News, which interviewed the teenager’s mother at the family home in Ashkelon and broadcast the interview on Saturday night.
The FBI and other foreign agencies cooperated with the Israel Police’s cybercrime unit in identifying and arresting the teen suspect on March 23. Last week, his detention was extended for an extra week by Rishon Letzion Magistrate’s Court, pending an indictment. He is being interrogated both by Israeli and U.S. law enforcement officials.
Weeping and emotional at times, the mother of the 18-year-old said her son was “not a criminal,” because he “didn’t know what he was doing” when he made the threats.
“Forgive me, but he has a tumor in his brain!” she said, breaking down during the interview. “He’s autistic! This isn’t something he could control! He doesn’t think right – he has a problem with logic. He needs medical care. He’s in very, very bad shape.”
The interview with the mother filled in details about the young man that were previously not made public – notably that the suspect had been diagnosed with autism from a young age and a tumor was first detected five years ago.
When he was arrested, his lawyer, Galit Bash, referred only to a “medical problem” that she said affected his “ability to understand right from wrong.”
The family’s concerns about extradition are justified. A request by U.S. authorities that he face criminal charges in the United States is highly likely, according to Eugene R. Fidell, Yale University lecturer and veteran attorney. “I think the odds are very high,” Fidell told Haaretz. “This is a serious matter that has been very disturbing to the Jewish community. Happily, no one was injured because it was fakery, but this is something the government can’t overlook. It’s not something that can be disregarded,” he said.
The threats in such a high number of locations spread fear throughout the American Jewish community, and triggered political controversy when they were presumed to be a sign of a new wave of anti-Semitism, triggered by the campaign and election of President Donald Trump.
Fidell said the young man’s autism was not likely to fall into the legal categories of insanity at the time he allegedly committed the crimes. And since he was capable of allegedly making the threats and operating the complex technology needed to mask his identity, it is also unlikely he will be determined incapable of participating in his own defense.
While his medical issues – both the autism and brain tumor – would likely be presented to U.S. law authorities, and the judge and jury in a bid for leniency, Fidell expressed doubt whether they would deter the United States from seeking extradition.
The accused’s mother, whose face was hidden during the television interview, said she had been unaware what her son was doing on his computer until the police knocked on their door to arrest him. She said the family had actually discussed the bomb threats in the United States. Furthermore, when she mentioned she had a friend back in the United States with a child in a threatened JCC, she said her son worried about the child as she did.
“I was in shock,” she said. “I wish I had known, and I could have prevented it.” Later, she repeated herself: “I was shocked. I’m still shocked. It makes no sense, this is a kid who loved Judaism.”
The mother related the story of her boy – an only child, born in the United States to her and her Israeli husband when she was 40. She said he was always different – at a year old he was unable to speak but could easily put together complicated puzzles. At 5, she said, he went to a Jewish school in the United States, but refused to sit still and “would get up and wander around,” and was sent home after a month.
Shortly afterward, she said, they moved to Israel and tried once more to put him in first grade. Again he didn’t manage in school, even when she sat next to him in the classroom, and since then he was homeschooled. The mother displayed the maps her son drew obsessively throughout his childhood and the tickets he had collected from every bus or train ride he had ever taken.
Five years ago, she said – showing her son’s brain scans as proof – a tumor was detected in his brain. She felt this explained his regression from merely reclusive and quirky behavior to the level where he was threatening Jewish institutions around the world and warning that “Jews are going to be slaughtered. There’s going to be a bloodbath. Their heads are going to be blown off,” in an electronically disguised voice.
“I’m so sorry about what happened, but he’s not guilty – it was the tumor,” she said. “This could happen to anyone who has a tumor on their brain.”
Pressed over how she had remained unaware about the bomb threats, the mother responded: “I didn’t know how many hours he was spending on the computer. I would return from work and go to sleep, and didn’t know how much time he was spending on the computer.”
The young man’s father, who works in high-tech according to the television report, was also arrested on suspicion that he was aware of his son’s alleged crimes or assisted him in some way. He was released to house arrest last week under restricted conditions.
The father’s lawyer, Maayan Haimovich, contended in the television report that neither the mother nor father “had any idea what was going on,” particularly because their son would use his computer when they went to sleep. “They had no control over what their son did in the middle of the night,” she claimed.
Authorities have thus far been unsuccessful in finding a motive for the young man’s behavior. After they found evidence that he purchased voice-changing technology using Bitcoin currency, they reportedly unsuccessfully searched for evidence that he might have been paid through Bitcoin to make the threats by a hate group or even terrorists.
His lawyer told Channel 2 News that no motive would be found, because “he just thought it was a game he was playing. That’s a symptom of the autism. His intelligence is unbelievable, but it comes with the childishness. Don’t forget that. This isn’t a regular kid.”
Israel has agreed to extradition requests for its citizens since the 1990s, with the proviso that, once sentenced, they can serve out potential jail terms in an Israeli prison.
According to the Justice Ministry website, “There has been a significant increase in the importance of extradition proceedings worldwide on account of technological developments.” As a result, “During recent years, offenders who have committed serious and sophisticated crimes, sometimes within the framework of organized crime, have been extradited from Israel to different countries, notwithstanding that they committed the crimes without leaving Israel’s borders.”
In 2012, one case was appealed at the Israeli Supreme Court, which unanimously upheld a ruling that permitted extradition of a couple charged with helping run a fraudulent lottery scheme from Israel that swindled elderly Americans through telemarketing.
The court said that failing to extradite them would hurt the ability of Israeli authorities to cooperate with other countries to counter global crime. Refusing to do so, the court added, would essentially offer protection to Israeli criminals preying on citizens in foreign countries using their telephones and computers.