May 28, 2009
Suspicious members of the Masjid Al-Ikhlas mosque in Newburgh, NY, knew him as “Maqsood,” a Pakistani man with flashy cars known for “cornering men in the parking lot after Friday prayer services, asking about jihad and offering them jobs and free lunches,” according to a JTA report.
Eventually, four ex-convicts took his bait, which, according to relatives interviewed by the New York Post, included “piles of cash and gifts and even bags of weed.” Over the next year, Maqsood supplied the men with the disabled explosives they would plant in front of the Riverdale Jewish Center and the Riverdale Temple in the Bronx and the Stinger rocket they hoped to aim at a military plane at Newburgh’s Stewart Air National Guard Base.
The four men were arrested last week in what the Anti-Defamation League called a “troubling reminder of the broader problem of the increased radicalization of a small subset of the domestic Muslim population”; Maqsood was unmasked by the media as an FBI informer and Pakistani native who worked for the FBI after his arrest in 2003 on felony fraud charges.
Not to downplay the evil intent of the four alleged conspirators — whose ringleader, James Cromitie, seemed to come to his hatred of Jews without any help from Maqsood — but I would feel better about this case if the roles were reversed.
That is, I’d feel much safer knowing that government moles are posing as vulnerable, troubled young men, in hopes of catching the real-life Maqsoods who try to recruit them for acts of terror. To kill a snake, they say, you cut off its head.
Truth be told, most American Jews probably don’t care whether the plotters were inspired by an eager government informer or came up with the plot on their own. As in the aftermath of the deadly shooting at a Los Angeles Jewish Community Center in 1999, or the arrest this month of man who allegedly murdered a Jewish student at Wesleyan and who dreamed of a “Jewish Columbine,” Jews simply want to know: Are we and our institutions safe?
The Secure Community Network, a Jewish coalition that coordinates with law enforcement, assured the community that the Riverdale plotters “were not part of a broader network and were kept under close surveillance.”
But some commentators insist that we draw darker conclusions from the thwarted plot and plan more stringent action.
According to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, it’s “only a matter of time until an American synagogue is blown up.” Goldberg charges that the “American-Jewish leadership knows this, and yet does virtually nothing to help prepare for the inevitable.”
That’s neither true nor fair; SCN regularly coordinates with law enforcement, and certainly since the LA JCC shooting and the Seattle Jewish federation shooting in 2006, nearly all Jewish institutions have added new security measures and protocols (which I hope they’re reviewing as we speak).
But before we start overhauling communal policy based on last week’s arrests, let’s remember what the stakes are. It’s a question of resources and lifestyles.
If the would-be Bronx bombers are seen to represent the tip of an anti-Semitic iceberg or the vanguard of a homegrown Islamist threat, Jews are going to have to accept the kind of security seen in many European synagogues and Jewish centers: armed guards, 24-hour surveillance, garrison architecture. The costs — literal and in a lost sense of well-being — will be enormous. As the national director of SCN wrote this week, any security plan must “balance vigilance [with] a determination to maintain the open, supportive atmosphere that represents the very purpose of our places of worship.”
My old friend Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, who happens to live in Riverdale, was at pains last week to put the arrests in his neighborhood in perspective. “Yes, there are real security challenges which we face both as Americans and as Jews, challenges which are bigger and more serious than they were some years back, and we must be vigilant about them,” he wrote on his blog. “But especially as Jews, we are a whole lot safer than we were a generation or two back, even here in America.”
It’s possible that Cromitie and friends would have found their own path to mayhem without Maqsood’s help. There will always be impressionable men with base and obscene motives — and extremist religious leaders and opportunists eager to exploit them.
But before we start wearing bullet-proof vests to shul, we might ask the government and police to review the tactics that are the most effective in foiling terrorism. How do we assess threats from terrorists willing to act alone, without direction from an Al Qaida operative or a mole posing as one? Are sting operations the best way to find and prosecute the genuine recruiters who are already in this country or are pulling strings from outside?
Our security depends on a lot more than bullet-proof stained glass and buzz-in systems to rival the Israeli embassy’s. We need to know: Are the people who are the best equipped to assure our safety — professionals in law enforcement, the military, and in the intelligence services — deploying their resources where they are needed most?
After reading about Maqsood and the Newburgh Four, I’m not convinced.