NEW YORK — A man walks into a synagogue offering a lethal ray gun with the goal of using it to target Israel’s enemies. Soon after he turns to the Ku Klux Klan with a similar offer.
In another era that might have been the opening of a bad joke. But according to charges filed in federal court Wednesday, that is just what happened before Glendon Scott Crawford and an associate were arrested in upstate New York and charged with conspiring to provide support for the building of a weapon of mass destruction. A federal magistrate ruled Thursday that the pair poses a threat and should be held without bail until a preliminary hearing in July.
“It’s not every day someone walks into your synagogue and offers you a ray gun,” said Rabbi Matthew Cutler, spiritual leader at Reform temple Congregation Gates of Heaven in Schenectady, New York. After Crawford came into the synagogue and talked to the administrative staff “about needing to protect the Jews and the people of Israel and he had a gift he wanted to offer us, the staff realized he was talking about weaponry,” Cutler told Haaretz.
In an effort to get Crawford, 49, off the premises, synagogue staffers suggested that he try the local Jewish federation, and Cutler, who also works as the local police chaplain, contacted the chief of police. After that, Cutler said, “we just wrote this thing off until the indictment.”
Crawford, an industrial mechanic who until this week worked for General Electric and his alleged co-conspirator, Eric Feight, a 54-year old engineer, made those overtures in April 2012. After being rebuffed by the synagogue, Crawford called the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York, located in Albany. That’s when the federation’s then-executive director reached out to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said Shelly Shapiro, director of community relations at the organization.
For the past 14 months, Crawford and Feight dealt with people they believed to be material suppliers and allies, but who were actually undercover agents and federal informers. Crawford also met with representatives of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina, last August and October, seeking their financial backing. He and Feight were attempting to construct vehicle-mounted radiation-emitting machinery that would be remotely controlled and bomb their intended targets with a lethal stream of radioactivity that would poison them, causing their death. The pair was arrested Tuesday while attempting to connect a remote activation device to the X-ray machine that authorities had given them after making it inoperable.
While experts said that the duo’s planned weapon could not really be made to function the way that they had planned, the federation’s Shapiro doesn’t want anyone dismissing would-be terrorists as crazy. She also said that the more Americans act like Israelis when it comes to security issues, the safer they will be.
“I don’t like calling them crazy. In reality somebody who can plot and plan like that, they are dangerous,” Shapiro said. In an interview shortly after she listened to a radio show in which the arrests were discussed, she said “everyone’s looking at conspiracy theories and entrapment, but we need to work closely with law enforcement to protect all of us, and that’s what we did.”
An influx of Israelis to upstate New York because the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering is expanding at the State University of New York at Albany, and the growth of private semiconductor manufacturer Global Foundries, is heightening the federation’s awareness of the need to focus on security, Shapiro said.
Paul Goldenberg is national director of the Secure Community Network, a group run by the Jewish Federations of North America and the President’s Conference to provide security training and crisis management to Jewish groups.
Goldenberg told Haaretz that Americans are becoming more adept at dealing with terrorist threats in part because they are learning from Israelis.
“The Israelis have been the leaders on ensuring that an educated public is a much safer public. The Americans, particularly the Department of Homeland Security, have studied their protocols and is in many ways putting that to use. In the U.S. the paradigm is changing,” he said.
Shapiro said that her federation organizes annual security training by SCN and the local FBI office. Based on that training, the federation staff knew how to handle Crawford’s 2012 phone call, she said. “You stay on the phone and get as much information as possible to determine whether it’s a threat, and then you turn it over to police. We all knew that this was a good example of how to react,” she said. “We work so closely with all of our law enforcement. We trust that they know what to do.”
Citing the recent controversy over revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency has been monitoring Americans’ phone and online activity, Shapiro suggested that Americans have misplaced priorities.
“If you’re talking about monitoring phone calls you’d better think twice about what is more important. Certainly Google knows more about you than the government,” she said. “All of us in this country have to remind ourselves that there are people who want to hurt us.”
Goldenberg said that even would-be terrorists as unsophisticated as Crawford and Feight and those who, like them, profess to be interested in protecting Jews rather than targeting them, pose a real threat.
“It’s a strange world. We make strange partners and bedfellows from time to time. Even hate groups will change the paradigm to try and reach their goals. At the end of their day we’ll find these two individuals were not the most sophisticated. But even someone who is not that sophisticated, if they’re good at putting together a model and using the Internet, can now put together weapons of mass destruction,” he said.
For his part, the synagogue’s Cutler described the experience of being approached by the would-be terrorist as “surreal.” “I’m waiting for The Daily Show to call me so I can tell them, ‘I have a bizarre story for you’ “ that would make a good skit, he said.
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