by Itsik Saban, Gadi Golan, Yoni Hersch, Reuters and Israel Hayom Staff
Israeli-American youth living in Ashkelon believed to be behind dozens of bomb threats to U.S. Jewish institutions • One call to Delta Airlines prompted emergency landing
A Jewish teenager with dual Israeli-U.S. citizenship living in the coastal city of Ashkelon was arrested on Thursday on suspicion of making dozens of hoax bomb threats against Jewish community centers in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
During a remand hearing for the youth at the Rishon Lezion Magistrates' Court on Thursday, defense attorney Galit Bash said her client suffers from an inoperable brain tumor diagnosed five years ago, and that his condition causes behavioral problems. She later told Reuters the tumor "may affect his behavior, his ability to determine right from wrong."
Bash said her client was home-schooled and incapable of holding down a job, and said he had been found medically unfit for compulsory military service. She asked the court to order a psychiatric evaluation for him. According to investigators, during his arrest, the suspect forcibly tried to take a weapon from a police officer. The youth's father was also detained in connection with the case.
U.S. federal authorities have been investigating a surge of threats against Jewish organizations, including more than 100 bomb threats in separate waves over the past three months, targeting Jewish community centers in dozens of states. The threats prompted criticism of U.S. President Donald Trump for what some Jewish groups saw as an inadequate response from his administration. He condemned the incidents in a major speech to Congress in February.
Although the calls the suspect allegedly made apparently began in January, the investigation itself spans over two years and was prompted by similar threats.
"The investigation began in the wake of incidents that took place in Israel and abroad affecting Jewish institutions, malls, airlines, and a whole host of institutions," a law enforcement officer told the court. The police believe the youth is responsible for most of the threats, though the precise number was not immediately clear. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the teen was apparently behind a bomb threat made against Delta Airlines in February 2015 that led to a plane making an emergency landing.
The threats forced the evacuation of many JCCs, including some with day care and school facilities for infants and young children. Coupled with other incidents such as the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, they have stoked fears of a resurgence in anti-Semitism in the United States.
According to investigators, the youth allegedly used five different computers to make the threats. He also set up a powerful antenna to obscure his location.
"He employed several techniques to prevent authorities from pinpointing his location and used a variety of communication devices to make the calls," said Superintendent Yaniv Azani, head of the Israel Police Cyber Crimes Unit.
"As soon as the investigation pointed toward Israel we joined forces [with U.S. authorities] and checked what was taking place on our turf, and it led us to the suspect and his equipment," Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh said Thursday.
The judge remanded both the teen and his father to police custody for an additional eight days. Both face charges of extortion, illegal hacking, and unlawful possession of firearms. The motives remain unclear, although according to some reports, the youth may have been paid for his actions using the bitcoin virtual currency. He has so far remained silent and is not cooperating with the investigation.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Thursday the arrests reflect the administration's determination to prosecute those who perpetrate hate crime.
"The Department of Justice is committed to protecting the civil rights of all Americans, and we will not tolerate the targeting of any community in this country on the basis of their religious beliefs," Sessions said in a statement. "I commend the FBI and Israel Police for their outstanding work on this case."
The FBI confirmed that arrests have been made in the case, but declined further comment.
The Anti-Defamation League said the alleged perpetrator's actions matter more than his background.
"We are relieved there has been an arrest in the majority of the bomb threats against community centers, schools, synagogues and several of our offices across the country. We are deeply grateful to the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the state and local law enforcement officials who made this investigation the highest priority," CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement.
"While the details of this crime remain unclear, the impact of this individual's actions is crystal clear: These were acts of anti-Semitism."
Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, said he was surprised by the news of the arrest, noting, "It was heartbreaking to learn that a Jewish man is a prime suspect."
Doron Krakow, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center Association of North America, said his organization was "troubled to learn that the individual suspected of making these threats ... is reportedly Jewish."
One of the teen's neighbors in Ashkelon said he was not surprised by the arrest.
"He would never talk and always wore the same clothes," the neighbor said.
Another neighbor said the youth would avoid communicating with others even when spoken to.
"When I said hello, he would not answer. People said he was mentally ill or had some mental problem; he was definitely not normal," the neighbor said.
U.S. authorities earlier made one other arrest in connection with the threats. Juan Thompson, a former journalist from St. Louis, is accused of making several threats to Jewish organizations while posing as an ex-girlfriend as part of a revenge plot against her.
Itsik Saban, Gadi Golan, Yoni Hersch, Reuters and Israel Hayom Staff
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