Law-enforcement authorities have opened investigations into two incidents in the Washington area involving suspicious surveillance of Jewish institutions, the Forward has learned.
The investigations began last month, but has gained new urgency in the wake of the November 15 terrorist bombings of two synagogues in Turkey, and amid new warnings from Israel about threats against Jewish targets.
In one case, however, the incident appears to have been benign.
A joint FBI-police task force in Maryland has opened an investigation into an incident in which a Saudi student and his girlfriend were caught filming the Bais Yaakov girls yeshiva in Pikesville, a Baltimore suburb. Fairfax County police have also opened an investigation into a similar incident involving at least two Middle Eastern-looking people at the Adat Rayim synagogue in Springfield, Va.
In both instances the individuals were questioned by federal agents. They denied any hostile or illegal intent and they have not been charged with any crime, according to law-enforcement and Jewish communal sources.
In the Virginia case, the synagogue has received an apology letter from the Voice of America in which the outlet explained that the couple was assigned to film a segment for a car program and had unlawfully used the parking lot to unload its equipment.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations informed its members in a November 7 memo that law-enforcement authorities had opened investigations and that similar reports of casing had surfaced recently in Europe.
The head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, Meir Dagan, told a Knesset panel on Monday that his agency had received some 40 alerts recently of terrorist attacks planned against Jewish and Israeli targets in various places in the world.
Dagan declined to specifically identify possible terrorist targets.
Dagan said Al Qaeda was probably responsible for the highly sophisticated twin attacks on synagogues in Istanbul, in which 25 people died, including six Jews and 19 Muslims. Al Qaeda leaders have made no secret, in both speeches and published announcements, of their eagerness to target Jews. The network has been accused of masterminding attacks against Jewish targets in Tunisia, Kenya and Morocco during the last year and a half.
Since September 11, American authorities have warned Jewish communal leaders on several occasions of intelligence indicating that Jewish targets could be hit in the United States.
American Jewish communal sources said there had not been any recent warnings from the American government about Jewish sites being targeted. Such warnings have been issued from time to time during the last two years.
Two European Jewish community sources said there had been had been one casing incident in Great Britain several months ago and another one in another European country they would not identify.
“People need to take the necessary precautions” by promptly and accurately informing law-enforcement authorities, said the executive vice-chairman of the Presidents Conference, Malcolm Hoenlein. “We know what happened in Istanbul could happen here.”
He said that although only the Baltimore and Virginia cases had led to investigations, there had been numerous instances in which people have reported what they regarded as suspicious activity in the proximity of synagogues. In none of these instances, however, were the tips found to be sufficiently detailed for the police to take action.
In the most recent incidents, the Presidents Conference used its new “secure community alert network,” or SCAN, to urge community leaders to make sure the necessary steps are taken to enhance reporting to law-enforcement officials.
Jewish community leaders around the world have been facing the need to meet the rising threat with a reassuring face while also stepping up their contacts with law-enforcement authorities to exchange information and improve security.
In the Pikesville incident, a parent spotted a couple filming school children as they exited a van on October 26. When the parent confronted the couple they fled, but he was able to write down their license plate after a car chase. He then filed a report to the county police, which referred the case to the FBI field office in Baltimore, where it was taken up by the joint task force on terrorism.
Bill Maddox, a spokesman for the FBI in Baltimore, said an investigation had been opened and was still ongoing. He said no arrest had been made and the task force was still looking into the background of the suspects. He would not comment on the investigation.
The incident was first reported in the Baltimore Jewish Times.
According to several intelligence and Jewish communal sources, as well as a series of letters sent to parents by Bais Yaakov school president Shlomo Spetner, the police have identified the Middle Eastern man as a Saudi student at a college in nearby Catonsville. They questioned him at his home and have been in contact with him ever since. His girlfriend, who allegedly was filming while he was driving, is not of Middle Eastern descent, Jewish communal officials said. The tape is in the hands of the FBI, which has also gotten in touch with Saudi officials.
Sources said he told investigators he was shooting a video that he was planning to send back to Saudi Arabia.
A local Jewish community source said the Saudi man was not on any terrorist watch list. He lives in Baltimore and has been at the college for four years although the program is a two-year program, the official added.
The student could not be identified. A Catonsville Community College spokesperson said the institution could not comment on such issues and referred questions to the police.
The Bais Yaakov school has kept parents abreast of the progress of the investigation and new steps taken to ratchet up security at the school. Levi Rabinovitz, a spokesperson for the 1,300-student school, said county police and independent experts were conducting an analysis of security procedures.
Jewish community leaders and school officials hailed the reaction of the parent, who has remained anonymous, as an example to follow.
In the Virginia case, the synagogue filed a report with the county police October 7 after someone spotted a Middle Eastern couple installing a camera on a tripod in the synagogue’s parking lot, according to police officer Cheryl Farrell.
Joe O’Connell, the director of public affairs for VOA, said he sent a letter to Rabbi Bruce Aft on October 30 to apologize about the trespassing incident and assure him that necessary steps had been taken to avoid such incidents. He said the two people were employees of the VOA’s Farsi-TV program who were shooting a segment for a car program. He added that the two left after someone from the synagogue confronted them and before police arrived on the scene. He added that the VOA had provided explanations to the Fairfax police.
“We were just embarrassed and we want to make sure this does not happen again,” he said.
Police officer Farrell said the synagogue had called the police again on October 15 after spotting a mini-van in front of the building. The mini-van was gone by the time police arrived.
Jewish community officials interviewed by the Forward were uniformly quick to warn against the risks of panic, both because of its impact on the psychological well-being of the community and because it can mislead law-enforcement. In one instance cited, residents in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn complained to police about a person taking a picture shortly after September 11, but the person turned out to be a photographer for the Jewish Press, a local weekly. In the Baltimore area, a local Jewish community official said that following the incident at the school, there had been three reports of persons allegedly seen taking pictures that proved to be unfounded.
In New York, the Jewish Community Relations Council issued a now-standard warning about the possibility of attacks during the Ramadan period. A JCRC official said there had been no incidents reported in the New York area recently.
Late last month, the Sunday Telegraph of London reported that up to 20 Iranian students were engaged in surveillance activity of synagogues and other buildings and that two had been asked to leave the country.
A spokesperson for the Community Security Trust in Great Britain said the community leadership was not aware of Iranians casing Jewish sites. However, the official added that an incident had occurred several months ago in which someone was caught filming in front of a Jewish community center. He said the person had been interrogated and let go, but declined to go into more details.