Jewish institutions, which have faced attacks in recent years by lone wolves — extremists who draw their inspiration from the like-minded but act on their own — now must be wary of returnees from the Iraq-Syria arena who are trained and indoctrinated by the jihadist group Islamic State (formerly ISIS,) top security consultants told JTA.
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IS has “not only stated intentions to form a caliphate, but named U.S. and Jewish people as targets specifically,” said John Cohen, who until earlier this year was an undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security. “There’s a significant threat to Jewish communities.”
The threat became evident with revelations that Mehdi Nemmouche, the suspect in the May 24 shooting attack on the Jewish museum in Brussels that killed four people, had allegedly been active with IS in Syria.
It’s not yet clear if Nemmouche was acting on orders and, if so, whether the orders came from IS.
Cohen, now a professor at Rutgers University’s Institute for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security, said that when Nemmouche was arrested during a customs inspection of a bus in France, firearms were found wrapped in an IS flag. Also, a journalist held captive by ISIS has identified Nemmouche as one of his captors.
Paul Goldenberg, director of the Secure Community Network, which works with national and local Jewish community groups on security issues, said the Brussels attack raised red flags for Jews throughout the world.
“Their first mark outside of the theater” of combat “was a Jewish institution, and it wasn’t even an Israeli institution,” Goldenberg said. “They didn’t attack an embassy, a consulate or NATO headquarters. These are people who are not only inspired but are well trained, potentially equipped and potentially coming back to the Americas. Those are the ones who have us concerned.”
SCN is an arm of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Federations of North America.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has estimated that more than 100 Americans have fought or are fighting with IS.
Cohen and Goldenberg said that many American Jewish institutions have been trained and equipped for lone wolf attacks and are positioned to fend off strikes organized from abroad.
Most recently, in the April shooting attack on a Jewish community center in suburban Kansas City, lockdown procedures are believed to have kept the assailant out of the building, limiting fatalities to two people outside.
“In many respects the Jewish community, because of the work that we’ve done over the years, the Jewish community is well prepared to deal with that threat,” said Cohen, who consulted often with the Jewish community during his time at Homeland Security.
He noted improvements in equipment, in many cases paid for by a Homeland Security funding program, and increased awareness of suspicious activity and cooperation with local law enforcement.
The Secure Community Network and the institute where Cohen now lectures are planning a conference at Rutgers for Jewish communities here and overseas. Goldenberg said SCN also was establishing a campus security task force with Hillel.
Cohen said that in the wake of the Brussels attack, Homeland Security enhanced its already close relationship with the U.S. Jewish community.
“We worked to share our information with members of the Jewish community and to provide guidance to members of the community so that they are better prepared,” he said.
President Obama in his speech last week outlining his strategies to destroy ISIS said there was a possible — but not imminent — threat to the homeland.
“If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States,” Obama said. “While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies.
“Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners, including Europeans and some Americans, have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”
Skeptics have said the threat is overstated. Daniel Benjamin, the top State Department official in Obama’s first term, exploded with sarcasm in comment to The New York Times on the day that Obama delivered his speech.
Benjamin, now the director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College, accused top U.S. officials of “describing the threat in lurid terms that are not justified.”
“It’s hard to imagine a better indication of the ability of elected officials and TV talking heads to spin the public into a panic with claims that the nation is honeycombed with sleeper cells, that operatives are streaming across the border into Texas or that the group will soon be spraying Ebola virus on mass transit systems — all on the basis of no corroborated information,” he told the newspaper.
Cohen agreed that there was no immediate intelligence presaging an attack, but suggested it was beside the point.
“We know we have an organization that has exhibited a certain level of brutality, a certain level of sophistication in regard to activities and an interest in recruiting Americans,” he said. “We know they have acquired significant amounts of funding, that they have directly stated that the U.S. is one of the enemies they seek to combat and that they have employed rather sophisticated techniques to recruit Westerners.”
Westerners, Cohen said, are useful to IS most of all as potential sleepers.
“They don’t need Westerners to establish a caliphate,” he said.