Jewish targets in the US on alert

February 14, 2008 6:13:46 PM PST
The FBI said Thursday it has put its domestic terror squads on the alert for any threats against synagogues and other potential Jewish targets in the United States following the killing of a Hezbollah commander. FBI spokesman Rich Kolko said there have been no specific threats so far against any Jewish centers after Tuesday's assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, which Hezbollah and its Iranian backers blamed on Israel.

Still, the FBI ordered its 101 nationwide Joint Terrorism Task Forces to contact community sources for any information signaling ramped-up Hezbollah activity over the next month. Such high-priority orders are not issued often, but they are not considered unusual.

"The FBI monitors world events and continues to maintain a strong posture through the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Forces for any and all threats emanating from any terrorist group," Kolko said in a statement. "Although we have no specific threat information at this time, we remind everyone to remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity to the appropriate authorities."

Intelligence officials said there are few, if any, Hezbollah guerrillas in the United States. However, the terrorist group has a fair number of fundraisers and sympathizers in the country. The U.S. considered Mughniyeh one of the world's most wanted and elusive terrorists.

The FBI order was sent out the day before Thursday's fiery eulogy by Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who vowed to avenge Mughniyeh's death by retaliating against Israeli targets abroad.

The Israeli government denied it was involved in the Damascus car bombing that killed Mughniyeh, although its military officials refused to confirm or deny involvement.

In addition to beefing up its troop presence along the Lebanese border, Israel put its military and embassies on alert - and advised Jewish organizations around the world to do the same. But Jewish institutions in the U.S. described the alert as another reminder to be aware of possible threats since strict protective measures are usually in place.

"Security for Jewish organizations and Jewish institutions around the world is a 365-day concern and has been for a long time," said Michael Salberg, director of international affairs for the Anti-Defamation League in New York. "When things heat up, when an incident occurs that raises concerns, it's a reminder. It doesn't change our focus on security."

The New York Police Department, the largest in the country, beefed up patrols at the Israeli mission and consulate after news of the threat and was monitoring synagogues and schools, chief spokesman Paul Browne said.

The Homeland Security Department acknowledged it was monitoring the situation overseas, but spokesman Russ Knocke declined to describe how closely. The department last year gave $24 million in grants to help Jewish nonprofit organizations in major cities bolster security measures in a nod to widespread belief that they are potential terror targets.

At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack described Nasrallah's remarks as "alarming."

"Anytime you have a terrorist organization making threats against a fellow democracy, a member of the United Nations, that is something that should concern every civilized nation around the world," McCormack told reporters.

"As a general matter, those kinds of statements are quite concerning and they should be alarming to everyone," he said. "Quite clearly, Hezbollah has a long record of carrying out violent acts and acts of terrorism around the globe. You have a pathway of violence that stretches from Buenos Aires to Kuwait and a lot of places in between."

Some Jewish institutions, such as synagogues and advocacy organizations, refuse to discuss security measures. For others, Thursday's call re-emphasized measures already in use.

At Temple Judea, in Coral Gables, Fla., Executive Director Marsha Botkin said they weren't doing anything differently.

"We have very tight security for getting in the building," Botkin said.

The temple has security cameras, doors are all regularly locked and visitors have to buzz to get in, she said. And when they hold services, a police officer is outside.

At the Ramaz School's three buildings on New York's Upper East Side, there have been armed security guards outside and other guards inside for several years, said Kenneth Rochlin, the school's administrator. Visitors must have appointments.

But Israel's message was a reminder of the importance of paying attention.

Andrea Policky, executive assistant at Temple Israel, the largest Reform Congregation in New England, said its security staff has been placed on high alert.

"They are aware of the situation," she said. "The security officers have been instructed on what to look for."

In California, the Los Angeles Police Department had not received any specific threats related to Mughniyeh's death but was beefing up its presence at Jewish institutions, malls and ports, said Deputy Chief Michael Downing, who heads the department's counterterrorism unit.

The Anti-Defamation League for several counties in Southern California sent out an e-mail warning to Jewish institutions in the area urging them to remain vigilant.

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Associated Press writers Deepti Hajela in New York, Jessica Gresko in Miami, Jay Lindsay in Boston, Thomas Watkins in Los Angeles, and Matthew Lee and Eileen Sullivan in Washington contributed to this report.