There was good news and not such good news from the New York Police Department Wednesday at its annual “High Holy Days briefing” before Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, held at 1 Police Plaza, the department’s headquarters near the Brooklyn Bridge.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly discussed the discouraging news with an audience of mostly bearded men in black coats and yarmulkes who filled the NYPD’s auditorium: this year has seen a “sharp increase in the operational tempo” of Hezbollah, the militant Shiite political party, key player in Lebanon’s fractious politics (it acts as Iran’s “proxy” in Lebanon), and source of deadly terrorist strikes against Israel, other Jews, and the U.S. since its creation three decades ago. Kelly said that Hezbollah’s or Iran’s fingerprints have been found on at least nine terrorist plots around the world since January, showing a capability and relentlessness of obvious concern to the NYPD and its vaunted counterterrorism division. The acceleration of such plots and the diversity of their locales—Bulgaria, Thailand, Cyprus, New Delhi, Kenya, and Azerbaijan—demonstrate that the July 18 strike on a busload of Israeli tourists at Burgas airport in Bulgaria, which killed seven and injured 21, “was not an isolated event,” said the NYPD’s new head of intelligence research, Rebecca Weiner (that’s “We-Iner,” as she gently corrected a rabbi who had mispronounced her name).
The better news, Weiner said, was that there has been no specific threat against Israeli or other Jewish targets in the New York metropolitan area as the High Holy Days approach. And while Iran and Hezbollah have plotted strikes in several countries with growing frequency, most have failed or been foiled, causing relatively few deaths or injuries.
Another bit of good news is that the sharp increase in terrorism sponsored by Hezbollah and its patron, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, comes as no surprise to the NYPD, whose intelligence and counterterrorism divisions have helped thwart at least 17 terrorist threats against the city since September 11. A senior NYPD intelligence official told me Wednesday morning that the department had been monitoring Iranian activity directed against Jewish and other New York targets for a decade. The amateurish nature of the some of the recent plots, and Hezbollah’s recruitment of drug cartel members and other criminal elements for these missions, also suggested that the sponsors may be “stretched thin” by their rapid tempo and forced to choose their partners-in-terror opportunistically—like a “pick-up team” in basketball, he said. “But still, we’ve long listed Hezbollah as a challenge, right up there with al-Qaida.”
Attendance at today’s event was by invitation only. Guests in the auditorium included some 300 prominent rabbis, Jewish community leaders, and other religious machers. “If you are important in Jewish religious life in the city, or think you’re important, or want to be considered important, you wanted to be here, or at least say that you were invited,” one official said. Rabbi Edgar Gluck, an Orthodox rabbi from Borough Park, for instance, made his 37th appearance at the annual gathering, which began in 1974. Commissioner Kelly thanked Gluck for giving an encomium to him and his police force during the session’s “question” period.
Regulars at the NYPD’s intelligence briefings, usually conducted in connection with its “Shield” program to educate the private-security community and other New Yorkers about terrorist threats, grasped that this meeting was different from all others. For one thing, attendees were welcomed by popular Yiddish folk tunes piped into the auditorium—“Fiddler on the Roof lite,” as one rabbi called the Muzak. Rabbi Dr. Alvin Kass, the NYPD’s chief chaplain, opened the event quoting the hero of Fiddler on the Roof, Broadway’s favorite Jewish musical: “One day it’s honey and raisin cake; the next day it’s a stomach ache.”
This being a Jewish holiday event, there was plenty of food. The Kosher Bagel Hole in Brooklyn supplied several varieties; a certification posted on the wall near the buffet attested to their kosher bona fides. Kosher as well were the accompanying spreads—plain cream cheese, salmon, and tuna. The alternative fare—muffins, rugalah, and, of course, cheese danish, quickly disappeared. Less popular were the vegetable and fruit platters. But almost every speaker, from Lieutenant Tony Giorgio, who opened the meeting, to Kelly himself, reminded guests that the “refreshments” would remain available before, during, and after the briefing.
Michael Miller, who has headed the influential Jewish Community Relations Council of New York since the mid-eighties, defended the NYPD’s intelligence division and accused the department’s critics, though not by name, of having published “misleading” reports about the nature, scope, and purpose of the NYPD’s militant-Muslim surveillance program. To the crowd’s applause, he noted that no court had found the department’s conduct unconstitutional, as the department’s press critics have charged. In 2002, not long after the 9/11 attacks, he reminded the audience, the NYPD had petitioned a court to get a change in its surveillance guidelines that would permit the police to start investigations aimed at preventing more terrorist attacks. Eight of the 18 terrorist plots in New York City since 1992 involved Jewish targets, Miller said.
Weiner, 35, who holds a B.A. and law degree from Harvard, joined the department as a terrorism analyst in 2006. The first woman to head the intelligence research unit, she succeeded Mitchell Silber, another Jewish analyst who recently left the NYPD this summer to join K2 Global Consulting, a security firm headed by Jeremy Kroll. She, too, has focused on the Middle East and on “homegrown” terrorism, which Silber and other NYPD analysts warned in 2007 would become an increasing challenge.
In her presentation, she noted that at least two separate plots apparently involved Lebanese men who had used Swedish passports to enter the target country. Hussein Atris, whom the Bangkok police arrested in January after a suspicious package on a bus turned out to contain explosives, is a Lebanese national who obtained Swedish citizenship by marrying a Swedish woman. Thai police announced that their inquiry led to a three-story commercial building in Bangkok, where they found 4,380 kilograms of urea-based fertilizer and 290 liters of ammonium nitrate, more than enough material for a devastating car or truck bomb. The Bangkok Post quoted police chief Priewpan Damapong as saying that Atris had been accused of having links to Hezbollah and “possession of prohibited substances.”
Another Lebanese carrying a Swedish passport was allegedly involved in a mysterious terrorism plot last July in Cyprus, a popular tourist destination for Israelis. According to Weiner, who quoted a Reuters report, Cypriot police arrested a 24-year-old man in Limossol for having conducted surveillance of Israeli targets, allegedly in preparation for an attack. Weiner said that the Cypriot police, apparently acting on a tip from a foreign intelligence agency—Israel’s, the Cyprus papers reported—has charged the arrested man with unspecified security offenses. In mid-July, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused both Hezbollah and Iran, its alleged “sponsor,” of being part of an “attempted terrorist attack . . . against an Israeli target in Cyprus.” Reuters noted that the suspect’s reported arrival on Cyprus coincided with the island’s assumption of the European Union’s presidency, and the presence of many European officials on the island to mark the event.
In an interview, Weiner said that she didn’t know whether the other plots she discussed involved Swedish citizens. But Middle Easterners holding such coveted passports are able to move freely throughout Europe and much of Asia and hence are of clear concern to counterterrorism officials. There are said to be some 20,000 Lebanese living in Sweden alone.
Iran’s spokesmen at its United Nations office didn’t respond to telephone calls requesting comment on its alleged involvement in terrorism plots, but Iranian officials in Teheran have denied the allegations. Analysts say that Iran is trying to avenge the killing of several of its nuclear scientists by Israel or Western agents. Hezbollah, too, seeks revenge against Israel for its alleged involvement in the assassination of Imad Mughniyah, its commander, in a car-bomb attack in Damascus two years after Lebanon’s 2006 border war with Israel.
Iranian fingerprints were found in several of the nine attacks this year, the NYPD says, including in the car bombing of an Israeli defense attaché in New Delhi on February 17 that injured the diplomat’s wife, driver, and bystanders. The Times of India quoted a senior Indian police official as saying that three Iranian suspects wanted in the attack— Houshang Afshar Irani, Mohammad Reza Abolghasemi, and Seyed Ali Mahdian—had fled to Tehran after allegedly carrying out the bombing.
Weiner and other analysts find little comfort in the sloppiness of some of the recent attacks or in Iran’s and Hezbollah’s alleged use of drug-cartel members and other petty criminals to conduct its strikes. (Hezbollah allegedly paid $150,000 to each member of a criminal gang suspected of trying to blow up a Jewish school in Azerbaijan on January 19.) The analysts are divided on a key question: whether Iran and Hezbollah have been forced to rely on less capable actors because of degraded capability or whether such recruits reflect a shift in strategy—a determination to quicken the pace but reduce the ambition and sophistication of its strikes.
What can New Yorkers do about these ongoing threats? Commissioner Kelly and Weiner both urged extra vigilance, invoking the NYPD mantra: “If you see something, say something.” In a city as diverse as New York, of course, that is not the easiest commandment to follow.