After Paris and Denmark, Could New York be Next?

Assemblyman tells how a security scare outside two synagogues highlighted fears of jihadist copycat attacks.

Larry Gordon ,

Are New York officials prepared enough?
Are New York officials prepared enough?

Another mad man drove his car into a bunch of people in Jerusalem on Purim, though thankfully this time no one was seriously hurt.  These things unfortunately happen too frequently, especially in Israel.  But as quickly as they happen and make headline news they also disappear from the news and from our attention as well - that is until the inevitable next time.

This is the nature of terror and acts of terrorism on a multiplicity of levels. And it all comes to the fore in the aftermath of surveillance videos that were released by the NYPD on Sunday morning showing two “Middle Eastern looking men” surveying and attempting to take photos outside of two large synagogues on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn this past Shabbat afternoon.

Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who resides just a few blocks from one of the synagogues, was out there late Saturday night with NYPD brass, detectives and members of the FBI Joint Terror Task Force.  We talked at length about the events and the notion and belief that what happens over there in the Middle East just cannot - or at least so far has not - happened here.

Hikind says that he has been speaking out on the subject for quite some time and that he is plainly concerned and even worried.  “Police are doing what they can do but more has to be done by us as well as law enforcement,” the Assemblyman said.  With Purim now behind us and Pesach just a few weeks away it is time to take the possibility of such an attack occurring here seriously.

The NYPD Intelligence Division gets high accolades and praise for doing an outstanding job at keeping the city safe.  The same can be said for the Nassau County Police Department that works closely with the NYPD and the FBI in monitoring the internet chatter and keeping under surveillance those considered to be the source of potential danger and damage.

In no uncertain terms there are reasons to be concerned. What the two men who visited the exterior of the two shuls were planning or doing last Shabbat was a mystery for a few days until they were identified as residing in Connecticut and having no evil designs or objectives. That they were found and questioned quickly is a credit to law enforcement. That they harbored no ill intent is a relief for all, but that doesn’t mean that the community should relax its guard.  

That the intelligence services are doing such an exemplary job is one aspect of all this. There is, however, concern about what has become known as “lone wolf” acts of terror, where an individual or a small coterie of friends or acquaintances are radicalized in some fashion - usually over the internet - and choose to carry out an attack on their own independent initiative. These types of a potential acts are very often beyond the scope of conventional law enforcement. 

As it turns out both synagogues in Brooklyn have full time security guards who immediately approached the two men, who promptly returned to their car and left. Hikind says that footage of security videos taken by cameras up and down Ocean Parkway - the installation of which was facilitated by Mr. Hikind’s efforts last year - are being reviewed by police and according to the Assemblyman, “are being taken very seriously.”   

In the aftermath of the Saturday afternoon events, Hikind says that he is concerned about two things. The first is regarding the security of all the synagogues - not only in Brooklyn but in densely populated Jewish areas around the country - which do not have the wherewithal or resources to pay for this type of security.

His second issue is whether or not these two men or others like them did not just happen upon two synagogues with a security apparatus. The concern is, did they know there was this type of security at these locations, and were carrying what police now call "probing"? Were they exploring to see what security measures were in place to gauge the possibility of carrying out an attack at a later date?

Plainly these matters are a concern for police officials and community leaders alike. The two on Saturday were about to begin photographing one of the buildings just as they were interrupted by the security guard on duty. Hikind said that the incident quickly conjured up news that was reported just last week about three Brooklyn residents who were planning on traveling to Syria to join ISIS. One of the three was arrested at JFK as he was about to board a plane to Turkey where he hoped to make his way to the border with Syria to join the murderous terror group.

Fortunately police had infiltrated this loosely structured group and heard about their plans, which included perpetrating violent acts here in the US if they were not successful making their way to the Middle East.

“What do we do if one of these men walks into a shul or a school and does the unthinkable?” Hikind asked. “I don’t think we are prepared or dealing with the possibility of such a reality.”

“There is this sense that it cannot happen here,” Hikind added, positing that it just might be that denial is the most "economical" approach to this problem, which so far has only been theoretical. 

But Dov Hikind is reaching out to city officials pleading with them to fund more advanced security measures for our synagogues, schools and institutions. He is hopeful that he will receive a positive response to his pleas and that funding will be quickly put in place to erect more security cameras to protect the city's streets and all religious institutions.

“A few weeks ago in Copenhagen a young man who was a volunteer security guard outside a shul was murdered by terrorists as he patrolled outside while a Bat Mitzva was taking place inside,” Hikind noted. However, he reiterates, there is nothing standing in the way of that kind of thing happening here - and in his estimation considering world events authorities are simply being too lax and not doing enough.

In Brooklyn on that Shabbat, as the two men approached the front door of Congregation Beth Torah they were asked by the security guard what they were looking for. Their response was that they simply wanted to see the prayers. According to Hikind, police say that the two were looking for a place that merchandised in Turkish or Middle Eastern food. The assemblyman said the other day that he thinks the explanation while plausible is somewhat unusual. 

So what do we do next?  Hikind has reached out to Mayor DiBlassio and Governor Cuomo on the matter of additional security funding and the need for increased police and other protections for Jewish institutions. New York features the largest Jewish community outside of Israel. Do we need police and military personnel at every synagogue and Yeshiva like they now have in Paris?

The answer, he says, is that if there is an incident you can rest assured that the Governor will be ready to call up the National Guard. The point is that no one wants to have to deal with the aftermath of a terror type matter impacting our community. We would like to think and believe that New York is different, law enforcement is doing an exemplary job and that it is unlikely that something like that will happen here.

So for now anyway, we know that the two videoed on surveillance cameras last Saturday taking photos in front of two synagogues were innocently exploring the area which they certainly are entitled to do. And that is good news. Unfortunately it does not mean that the next time we see something like this occur that we should be any less suspicious.