US-Israeli teen arrested in connection with threats to Jewish community centers

Three months after Jewish community centers began receiving bomb threats, Israeli police say they have arrested the man responsible for the hoax.

Baz Ratner/Reuters
A US-Israeli teen (r.), arrested in Israel on suspicion of making bomb threats against Jewish community centers in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand over the past three months, is seen before the start of a remand hearing at Magistrate's Court in Rishon Lezion, Israel, on March 23, 2017.

Three months after Jewish community centers began receiving bomb threats, police have arrested the man they say is behind the hoax. The suspect’s background may challenge assumptions that the threats were part of a rising tide of anti-Semitism. 

On Thursday, police in Israel arrested a man they believe threatened Jewish institutions in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as within Israel. The teenage suspect, who is reported to be Jewish, holds dual US and Israeli citizenship and was found unfit for compulsory military service in Israel. The arrest was made in cooperation with the FBI and other international police forces.

"We believe he is responsible for the wave of calls, bomb threats, made to Jewish community centers in the United States," a police spokesman told Reuters.

Concerns about anti-Semitism have been at the forefront during these threats. But the suspect’s motive remains unclear, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told the Associated Press, describing the man as a hacker. Galit Bash, the lawyer for the Israeli suspect, told reporters outside a courthouse that a very serious medical condition had prevented him from serving in the Army or going to school and could have affected his behavior. 

More than 150 threats have been made against Jewish institutions, including community centers and day schools, across the US and Canada over the past three months, according to the Anti-Defamation League. These threats – made without foundation – resulted in the evacuation of community centers worldwide and allegedly contributed to an emergency landing by a Delta jet last month.  Israeli police say the threats also caused “significant economic damage.”

The waves of calls prompted a police investigation that first led police to charge Juan Thompson, a former journalist from St. Louis. He faces one count of cyberstalking for making such threats via email while posing as his ex-girlfriend.

Authorities believe, however, that the man arrested Thursday is responsible for the vast majority of the threats. They say he used advanced technologies to mask his location and hide his identity when making the calls.

"He didn't use regular phone lines. He used different computer systems so he couldn't be backtracked," Mr. Rosenfeld explained.

A search of the suspect’s house, conducted Thursday, found antennas and satellite equipment that police say could have been used to carry out threatening calls.

The man has been taken to a court in central Israel for a remand hearing.

The White House spoke out against the threats last month, saying it rejected “anti-Semitic and hateful threats in the strongest terms.” Some had blamed the rise of populism, which fueled President Trump’s victory, for the threats. Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, are Jewish.

On Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the arrest is part of a larger investigation into hate crimes directed against the Jewish community. 

The Justice Department "will not tolerate the targeting of any community in the country on the basis of their religious beliefs,” he said.

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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