Washington - Jewish communities worldwide went on heightened alert this week, following threats by Hezbollah to avenge the assassination last week of Imad Mugniyah, a longtime senior leader of the terrorist group.
In the United States, the FBI sent out alerts to field offices and law enforcement agencies nationwide to increase awareness of the heightened possibility of attacks against Jewish targets. Jewish institutions were advised to check their security procedures and remain vigilant.
While urging vigilance, American security officials emphasized that there is no specific threat and no intelligence pointing to the possibility of an imminent Hezbollah attack against Jewish targets in the United States.
“It’s all a matter of balance,” said Paul Goldenberg, executive director of the Secure Community Network, which provides Jewish institutions with security information and guidance. “We don’t want people to panic following the threats of [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah, but this also does not mean Jewish institutions should lower their guard.”
Hezbollah has in the past demonstrated its ability to target Jewish institutions far from the Middle East. In 1992 it car bombed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29, and two years later it again hit the Argentine capital, killing 85 at the AMIA Jewish community center; Mugniyeh was considered a suspect in both attacks. Hezbollah has also carried out deadly attacks against Americans, but they have all been outside the United States, and the terrorist group has reportedly shown little to no activity in America.
During the funeral last week for Mugniyah, who was killed by a car bomb in Damascus, Nasrallah warned that the group would retaliate against Israel “anywhere,” prompting concern that Hezbollah will target Israeli and Jewish institutions and individuals outside Israel.
Following Nasrallah’s speech, the Secure Community Network convened a conference call with 45 security directors at Jewish federations around the country. Later that day, the network put out a community-wide alert urging Jewish institutions to “reinforce and encourage all to revisit your security preparedness, plans, access controls and awareness operations at this time.”
While no immediate threat is apparent, Goldenberg points to the 2006 attack on the offices of Seattle’s Jewish federation as a warning sign.
“The community has been a victim of violence carried out in the name of jihad,” he said of the attack, in which a gunman killed one employee and wounded six others during that summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah. “There are people here who agree with Hezbollah ideologically.”
According to Goldenberg, in recent years there were several instances in which Jewish institutions in America appear to have been been surveyed in what he and others suggest may have been preparation for possible attacks.
The FBI issued a bulletin Friday to 18,000 state and local law enforcement officials, saying that “while retaliation in the U.S. homeland is unlikely,” there is still a need to increase awareness due to Hezbollah’s past reactions to similar events. Two days earlier, the FBI sent out an alert to its joint terrorism task forces, calling on them to monitor activity of suspected Hezbollah supporters in the United States.
An alert was also issued by the Israeli government to its diplomatic missions around the world and to Israelis traveling abroad.
At the same time, Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, projected resolve during a visit to Washington last week.
“Israel is a strong country, the Jewish people are strong and our answer to terror is clear,” she said. “We will not panic because of threats voiced by a terrorist.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.