Area Jewish organizations on alert

| October 30, 2010

Two packages containing explosives, each bound for a different Jewish place of worship in Chicago, were intercepted, foiling what President Barack Obama on Friday called a "credible terrorist threat against our country" and putting synagogues in the city and suburbs on high alert.

Officials would not identify exact destinations for the packages. A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they were addressed to two locations — in the East Rogers Park and Lakeview neighborhoods.

The packages were found late Thursday aboard cargo planes — one in England and one in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The discovery set off a massive international security effort as authorities rushed to track other parcels headed to America from Yemen, searching jets in Philadelphia and Newark, N.J. A passenger jet from Yemen was escorted by U.S. military fighter jets to Kennedy Airport in New York where its cargo was searched.

No other suspicious packages were found.

As they launched a terrorism investigation on three continents, authorities said suspicion fell in particular on al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen, which has been linked to the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner on Christmas Day. The explosive material found in the two packages is the same as that used in the failed airliner attack, according to a U.S. official.

A federal law enforcement official said initial reviews of the two suspicious cargo packages showed that the one found in England apparently contained a printer or ink toner cartridge with "some kind of white powder," and syringes and wires. He said the package uncovered in Dubai apparently contained cell phone components and a timer.

Officials said it was uncertain whether the devices were operational or whether they were to be picked up and activated by someone in Chicago. One official said federal law enforcement authorities believe the latter scenario to be most likely.

Federal authorities warned the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago on Friday morning of a potential threat to area synagogues, said its spokeswoman, Linda Haase. She said synagogues across the Chicago area were urged to take appropriate precautions, though she declined to comment on the nature of the threat or what precautions were necessary.

"Sadly, this is not the first time we have had to deal with threats of this kind," she said.

Chicago FBI spokesman Ross Rice said in a statement that the two suspicious packages were addressed to religious institutions in the city. "All churches, synagogues and mosques in the Chicago area should be vigilant for any unsolicited or unexpected packages, especially those originating from overseas locations," he said.

Obama said Friday's events "underscore the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism."

Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism in Washington, said that if al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is behind the plot, it may have chosen Chicago as a target because it is the hometown of the U.S. president.

"They may be trying to send a message to Obama that they can attack his backyard as well," said Segal, noting that the choice of synagogues as targets is consistent with al-Qaida's anti-Jewish rhetoric.

With just days to go before the midterm elections, the White House said Obama will still attend a rally Saturday in Chicago.

"Our counter-terrorism professionals are on the job and the president's not going to change his schedule and there's no cause for Americans to change their schedules," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Intelligence officials have been monitoring the suspected plot for days, an official said. The packages were discovered late Thursday after a foreign intelligence service picked up information related to Yemen and passed it on to the U.S., one official said.

The incidents highlight a known vulnerability in the air cargo industry. The federal government has mandated in recent years that all cargo on passenger aircraft be screened, a goal that was achieved only in August. But the issue of parcels aboard cargo-only aircraft has been far more difficult to resolve. As far back as March 2009, the industry warned Congress it would not be able to meet the August deadline that 100 percent of cargo would be screened.

State Sen. Ira Silverstein, an Orthodox Jew from West Rogers Park, said he got chills when Obama said in a nationally televised address that the packages contained explosive material.

"Thank God that we have good security," Silverstein said. "We ought to be grateful for (the authorities). But it's going to put the community at jitters."

Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Lakeview said the congregation will not accept UPS packages until "we know the danger has passed."

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Siegel said, the synagogue has worked to enhance security, including arranging for off-duty police officers to monitor the building's entrance. He said he doesn't want the latest threat to disrupt the congregation's normal practices.

"The last thing we want to do is give in to terrorism on any level," Siegel said.

That was a view shared by many Chicago area rabbis.

Rabbi Michael Balinsky, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, said he expected Saturday Sabbath services would go on as usual despite the warning.

Rabbi Leonard Matanky of Congregation KINS on North Shore Avenue said he received a flurry of e-mails from concerned members throughout the day but said calm was the best way to address the concerns.

"Our most important way fighting people who try to create terror is trying to re-create normalcy," Matanky said. "If someone wants to get us nervous, the best response is to maintain a normal life."

Tribune reporters Katherine Skiba, Jeremy Gorner, Andrew L. Wang, Ron Grossman, Annie Sweeney, William Lee, Dave Elsner, Jane Fritsch, Jonathan Bullington, Jeff Danna and Rex W. Huppke contributed to this report, as did Paul Richter, Richard A. Serrano and Brian Bennett of the Tribune's Washington Bureau.,0,5191280,full.story

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Category: Synagogue/Jewish Security