(September 10, 2021 / JNS) As Americans gather this year to remember the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, they do so amid a landscape that is increasingly divided domestically, where hate crimes are at a record high, the Taliban has become the official government of Afghanistan, and experts say that homegrown terror threats continue to be a major security concern.
“The issues facing the United States and how we have dealt with them have changed dramatically over the last 20 years,” according to Michael Masters, director of the Secure Community Network, which serves as the liaison between the Jewish community and federal law enforcement.
“On the eve of Sept. 11 , Osama Bin Laden had several hundred fighters who had pledged their loyalty to him. Today, while there are several notable exceptions, almost all of Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership from 20 years ago, including bin Laden, are dead or in jail. In almost every tactical situation, the United States has had success, but there has been, in a real sense, a broader strategic failure,” he told JNS this week in an online interview.
“The dynamic that allowed Al-Qaeda to exist and expand—and its breakaway rival, the so-called Islamic State—continues to exist,” he continued. “There are now four times as many Islamist terrorist groups designated by the United States as Foreign Terrorist Organizations as there were on 9/11.”
Masters went on to say that “there are now tens of thousands of fighters loyal to these organizations and the ideologies that support them, spanning from Southeast Asia to Western Africa and beyond. At the same time, we have seen the growth of domestic violent extremists and individuals radicalized to violence through social media; terrorism of today operates in a broader context that individual groups. This fluid and complex dynamic is significantly different than the conditions faced two decades ago.”
In a threat assessment issued last month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which was created in the aftermath of the terror attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon, stated: “The [h]omeland continues to face a diverse and challenging threat environment leading up to and following the 20th [a]nniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks as well [as] religious holidays [that] we assess could serve as a catalyst for acts of targeted violence.
“These threats include those posed by domestic terrorists, individuals and groups engaged in grievance-based violence, and those inspired or motivated by foreign terrorists and other malign foreign influences,” the Aug. 13 National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin. “These actors are increasingly exploiting online forums to influence and spread violent extremist narratives and promote violent activity. Such threats are also exacerbated by impacts of the ongoing global pandemic, including grievances over public-health safety measures and perceived government restrictions.”
Adding to the concern, a report by CNN last week noted that some far-right extremist groups in the United States expressed public admiration for the Taliban and their disdain for Jews with comments like “If white men in the West had the same courage as the Taliban, we would not be ruled by Jews currently,” a comment that was discovered by the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks hate groups online, and appeared on a page at the social-media site Telegram.
All of which begs the question, especially as many congregations are once again holding outdoor services due to the rise of the Delta variant of COVID-19, what, if any, threat is there to the Jewish community. Especially given the timing of 9/11, which this year falls out on Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
‘We can’t sit idly by waiting for the next attack’
Noting that Americans reside in a “complex and dynamic threat environment,” Masters believes that the challenge for both the United States and the Jewish community “will be to ensure we are taking a comprehensive, strategic approach to security and safety that covers the whole of our community, and is sufficiently agile and flexible to address the full array of threats and issues we encounter from manmade threats to natural disasters—balancing the need for security while ensuring that the community remains open and welcoming.”
To that end, groups like Community Security Service and Magen Am are encouraging people to step up and help protect their communities while working behind the scenes to ensure that Jewish institutions are as prepared as possible. For instance, both SCN and CSS have hosted security and informational webinars in recent weeks.
“The events of the last year have opened the eyes of many and helped them understand that we can no longer ignore the reality when it comes to the safety and security of our community,” said Leibel Mangel, a spokesman for Magen Am, a Los Angeles-based Jewish organization that promotes the use of armed security teams comprised of trained community members. “It is an unfortunate reality, but we can’t sit idly by waiting for the next attack. Though we don’t have any specific intel about threats related to the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we are well aware of the significance and are taking every precaution.”
Among those precautions are coordinating with local police branches, increasing patrol hours of the Magen Am armed patrol car and ensuring that “team members”—community volunteers and veterans of both the U.S. military and Israel Defense Forces who have stepped up to secure communal institutions—“are stationed as a first line of defense.”
According to Evan Bernstein, the CEO of CSS, which trains volunteers to protect local Jewish institutions, the High Holidays were always a time when Jewish leaders would reassess their security as federal and local law enforcement issued reports on threat levels of concern to the Jewish community.
“The fact that 9/11 is put into the mix, sometimes, makes that more complicated,” he said. “In the last four or five years, we’ve seen trends that make the community take security even more seriously than before,” as acts of Jew-hatred “are not coming from one particular group in this country, but from all sides.”
Those trends include the increasing levels of anti-Semitism nationwide. According to a recently released report by the FBI, attacks against Jews account for 57 percent of all religiously motivated hate crimes nationwide.
According to Bernstein, his organization has seen a 30 percent uptick in synagogues interested in creating their own volunteer security base, with some 1,000 new volunteers being trained to keep their local institutions safe.
Yet he believes more can and must be done.
“Every venue has different needs and faces different threats,” stated Bernstein, who previously worked at the Anti-Defamation League. “Every synagogue has unique DNA, unique size, a unique congregation base, and every single synagogue needs its own threat assessment.”
Whether that means going through local law enforcement or Jewish communal organizations like SCN or the Jewish Community Security Initiative in the New York area, the goal is to ensure it’s done properly and thoroughly.
“You’ve seen a lot of the Jewish community take security seriously,” he continues, “but it’s not across the board, and it needs to be.”
Experts say doing that requires people within the Jewish institutions themselves to step up and become knowledgeable about the manifold risks and how to minimize them since they are the ones who know their community best.
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