Terror Threat Against Synagogue Was False Alarm

By Nathaniel Popper

Published August 13, 2004, issue of August 13, 2004.

With federal and city officials racing to respond to warnings of new terrorist strikes against the United States, the media appears to have set off a frightening false alarm about an alleged threat to a small Manhattan synagogue.

Time magazine reported Monday that the historic Eldridge Street Synagogue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side was “singled out” for attack in the same batch of seized Al Qaeda documents and computer records that led to the heightened alert at five financial institutions in New York, Newark, N.J., and Washington. The surveillance information on all these potential financial targets was uncovered in connection with the arrest of suspected terrorists in Pakistan and London late last month. The treasure trove of information included 51 computer discs and copious paper files.

After American law enforcement authorities sifted through the material, though, counterterrorism experts at Jewish organizations say the only evidence pointing to the Eldridge Street Synagogue was a tourist brochure about downtown Manhattan in which the synagogue was mentioned.

“The [Al Qaeda agents] went downtown and collected tourist brochures of what is in the area,” said Yehudit Barsky, a counterterrorism expert at the American Jewish Committee, who spoke with law enforcement authorities Tuesday. “They were just looking at the entire area. If they had even written on the brochure, we would have started talking about this as a specific threat.”

It now appears that the trove of information captured with the terrorists contained no specific threats to the Jewish community. But the careful combing of this material only produced results after the New York Sun and New York Post had picked up on the Time article.

In the Sun and Post articles, law enforcement and Jewish communal officials were given space to question the likelihood of any threat against a synagogue with only 20 regular attendees at its weekend services. But the Sun also reported that the Eldridge Street Synagogue suddenly had closed after being called by the reporters.

The president of the synagogue, Paul Bookson, said the reports on the threats were “ridiculous,” and that without specific information from law enforcement officials the congregation had taken no additional security precautions. A number of observers said the incident underscored the degree of good communication between law enforcement authorities and Jewish institutions. Jewish institutions, these observers said, are fully confident that they will be the first ones alerted in the case of an actual threat, and will not have to find out through the media.

The Jewish community has developed a rapid response system to alert Jewish institutions in the case of a specific threat. Dubbed the Security Community Alert Network, the system was set up in January, but no information has emerged to convince Jewish communal officials that it should be activated. Jewish communal officials said they have been careful not to use the system wantonly after seeing the confusion caused by the American government’s coded alert system.

“We are cautious so that we don’t lose our credibility,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We want people to know when there is a real threat.”



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