19-year-old arrested in threats on US Jewish Community Centres

Israeli police arrested a 19-year-old Israeli Jewish man as the primary suspect in a string of bomb threats targeting Jewish community centers and other institutions in the U.S., marking a potential breakthrough in a case that stoked fears across America.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld described the suspect as a hacker, but said his motives were still unclear. Israeli media identified him as an American-Israeli dual citizen and said he had been found unfit for compulsory service in the Israeli military.

Toronto Police say this teen is not the person responsible for threats made on the same day to a Jewish Community Centre in Toronto.

In the US, “He’s the guy who was behind the JCC threats,” Rosenfeld said, referring to the dozens of anonymous threats phoned in to Jewish community centers in the U.S. over the past two months.

Israeli police said the suspect made dozens of calls claiming to have placed bombs in public places and private companies, causing panic and “significant economic damage,” and disrupting public order, including by the hurried evacuations of a number of public venues around the world. The man is suspected of placing threatening phone calls to Australia, New Zealand and also within Israel.

Rosenfeld said the man called Delta Airlines in February 2015 and made a false threat about explosives aboard a flight from John F. Kennedy Airport. The threat allegedly led to an emergency landing.

Rosenfeld said the man, from the south of Israel, used advanced technologies to mask the origin of his calls. He said police searched his house Thursday morning and discovered antennas and satellite equipment.

“He didn’t use regular phone lines. He used different computer systems so he couldn’t be backtracked,” Rosenfeld said.

After an intensive investigation in cooperation with FBI representatives who arrived in Israel, as well as other police organizations from various countries, technology was used to track down the suspect who had made the threats around the world, Rosenfeld said.

“Today’s arrest in Israel is the culmination of a large-scale investigation spanning multiple continents for hate crimes against Jewish communities across our country,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said. “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.  I commend the FBI and Israeli National Police for their outstanding work on this case.”

The FBI released a statement confirming the arrest and commending the work of the Israeli National Police, but did not go into details about the investigation.

“Investigating hate crimes is a top priority for the FBI and we will continue to work to make sure all races and religions feel safe in their communities and in their places of worship,” the statement read. “At this time, we cannot provide additional information on the investigation.”

According to the Anti-Defamation League, there have been more than 150 threats against Jewish institutions in 37 states and two Canadian provinces since Jan. 9. The threats were accompanied by acts of vandalism on several Jewish cemeteries.

The ADL said it was “relieved” that there’s been an arrest in the case, but urged the Jewish community to remain vigilant.

“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,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement.

“Even though it appears that the main culprit behind the majority of these attacks has allegedly been identified, anti-Semitism in the U.S. remains a very serious concern. No arrests have been made in three cemetery desecrations or a series of other anti-Semitic incidents involving swastika graffiti and hate fliers.  JCCs and other institutions should not relax security measures or become less vigilant,” he added.

Jordan Shenker, head of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, said he is cautiously optimistic that the man arrested in Israel on Thursday acted alone and that the threats will be over. Shenker, whose center received three phone threats since January, said the arrest has led to a feeling of being able to exhale, but that the center has always prioritized security and will continue to.

“I think there’s a sense of relief that somebody has been arrested and identified as centrally responsible for a large number of these calls,” Shenker told WCBS 880’s Marla Diamond. “Certainly very thankful to the FBI and the international intelligence community for the effort, energy and priority they put on resources to identify who has been responsible for these acts of hatred and intolerance.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he hopes the arrest “brings comfort to those affected by his despicable hate crime.”

The threats led to criticism of the White House for not speaking out fast enough. Last month, the White House denounced the threats and rejected “anti-Semitic and hateful threats in the strongest terms.”

Last month, was charged in connection with at least eight threats against the ADL headquarters in New York City and JCCs nationwide. Prosecutors said the threats were made in an effort to harass and vilify his former girlfriend.

In New York City, anti-Semitic incidents – including bomb threats, swastikas on doors and subways, and threatening phone calls and emails — continue to skyrocket.

The latest NYPD statistics show a 177 percent increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes – 72 so far this year compared to 26 for the same period in 2016.

The NYPD will increase the police presence at all Jewish institutions in the city for Passover.