LOS ANGELES — With the indictment of four men in an alleged prison-hatched plot to attack Israeli, Jewish and military targets in Los Angeles, synagogues and Jewish institutions in the area have intensified their security measures in preparation for the High Holy Days.
While in this instance the alleged Muslim plotters were caught, thanks partly to a lucky break, Jewish and law enforcement officials emphasized that the threat level to the Jewish community remains high.
Much of the attention has focused on California prisons as the likely breeding ground for extremist Muslim gangs.
The indictment by a federal grand jury charged three American-born converts to Islam and one Pakistani national with conspiracy to kill American and foreign — apparently Israeli — government officials and conspiracy to levy war against the United States through terrorism.
Among the specific targets, according to the indictment, were the Israeli Consulate and some of its officials, the El Al ticket counter at the Los Angeles International Airport, two synagogues and military recruiting stations.
The two synagogues on the target list are located in the Robertson-Pico corridor, a neighborhood with many Orthodox institutions and residents.
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said that his own Orthodox B’nai David-Judea Congregation had been visited by a large police contingent to check on security measures.
“The police did not state whether B’nai David-Judea was on the target list,” Kanefsky said. He knew of no other synagogues that had received similar police visits.
The initial break in the investigation came in mid-July, when local police investigating a string of gas station robberies found a cell phone dropped during a holdup by Gregory Vernon Patterson, 21, one of the suspects.
That find led police to the apartment of his partner, Levar Haney Washington, 25, where they found “jihadist” literature, bulletproof vests, and an address list of some two-dozen Los Angeles sites. Included was the “headquarters of Zion,” with the address of the Israeli Consulate.
An examination of Patterson’s computer turned up Internet research on local Israeli targets and the calendar date for Yom Kippur, which begins this year on the evening of October 12.
From there, the trail led to Kevin Lamar James, 29, an inmate in a state prison in Folsom, Calif., who allegedly orchestrated the plot from within the prison walls.
Authorities said that James had founded Jamiyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh, which roughly translates as the Assembly of Authentic Islam, an extremist offshoot of Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam.
In a 100-page manual, James told followers that it was their duty to violently attack the American government and Jewish and non-Jewish supporters of Israel, according to the indictment.
In their comments, rabbis and Jewish lay leaders sought to strike a balance between alerting the community and avoiding panic.
“We want people to be fully aware but retain the spiritual value of attending Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Los Angeles Board of Rabbis.
There are some 150 synagogues in the Greater Los Angeles area.
Amanda Susskind, a regional director at the Anti-Defamation League, said that the confluence of prison recruitment, the growing radicalization of Islam, and domestic terrorist threats in the alleged plot were bound to raise the level of concern.
The ADL and law-enforcement agencies have scheduled a September 15 security briefing for local Jewish institutions.
Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, Ehud Danoch, praised the FBI, the local police and the mayor’s office for “keeping us continually updated and involved at every stage of this investigation.”
He added, “We in Israel know only too well the challenge of constant vigilance in the effort to protect innocent civilians.”
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who serves on a state Homeland Security committee, stressed the vital importance of constant communication between Jewish institutions and law-enforcement authorities.
“California has some 50% of all likely terrorist targets in the United States,” he warned. Cooper urged the state’s prosecutors to pay particular attention to the danger of extremist clergy ministering to prison inmates.
Some 200 local and federal agents of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force have been participating in the current probe, and top officials are stressing that the stakes are high.
U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, in announcing the indictment of the four suspects, said, “This summer, Americans watched so-called homegrown terrorists unleash multiple bombings in the city of London. Some in this country may have mistakenly believed that it could not happen here. Today we have chilling evidence that it is possible.”
After Gonzales praised “the work of able investigators at all levels of government” in solving this case, he drew criticism from scholar Daniel Pipes, who has warned frequently that Western countries have not done enough to confront Islamist violence in America and overseas.
“If not for the lucky break of a dropped phone, the jihadists probably would have struck,” Pipes wrote in a September 6 column in The New York Sun. “It is extremely disturbing to see law enforcement pat itself on the back for ineptitude.”
In his column, Pipes wrote that this was the first time native-born Americans had taken part in a “large-scale” terror plot.
“Terrorist plans that fail don’t make headlines, but they should. This was a near miss. Homegrown radical Islam has arrived and will do damage,” Pipes wrote. “Even though most Jews resist acknowledging it, the Muslim threat is changing Jewish life in the United States. The golden age of American Jewry is coming to an end.”