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Teen in Israel linked to bomb threats against Jewish community centers

Threats in Tucson may be connected

An Israel-American teenager has been arrested by Israeli police following an investigation that linked him to the rash of bomb threats against nearly 150 Jewish community centers in the United States — which may include two threats that put the Jewish Community Center in Tucson on lockdown late February and early March. 

A spokesman for police in Israel said the 18-year-old suspect, who holds both Israeli and U.S. citizenship and lives in southern Israel, had made threats to Jewish institutions in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, and caused at least one commercial flight to make an emergency landing, reported the New York Times. 

The motive for the threats was unclear, however, the teen's attorney told the Times of Israel that his client suffers from a nonmalignant brain tumor that leads to behavioral issues.  

Investigators said that the teenager used "advanced technologies to mask the origin of his calls and communications to synagogues, community buildings and public venues." When police searched his house Thursday morning they discovered antennas and satellite equipment used to make the threats. 

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said praised the arrest as "the culmination of a large-scale investigation spanning multiple continents for hate crimes against Jewish communities across our country." 

"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. "I commend the FBI and the Israeli national police for their outstanding work on this case."

TucsonSentinel.com asked the FBI and officials with the Justice Department if the incidents in Tucson were connected to Thursday's arrest, however, neither agency has responded. 

"We do not have any information as to which specific threats he is associated" with, said Todd Rockoff, the president of the Tucson Jewish Community Center. 

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On the evening of Feb. 27, the Tucson JCC received a phone call that a device was in the parking lot, requiring a lockdown of the facility. Dozens of people in the facility were sheltered in place while Tucson police officers searched the facility. 

A similar threat was made in Arizona against the Valley of the Sun JCC in Scottsdale. 

The threat was one of 35 made against Jewish institutions that day, including dozens of community centers, schools, and an office of the Anti-Defamation League, reported ProPublica. 

Less than two weeks later, on March 10, the Tucson JCC received another threat, requiring community center members to again shelter in place for 90 minutes while police searched the facility. 

Overall, there have been at least 146 bomb threats made against 135 locations nationwide. 

At least eight of the threats were linked to Juan Thompson, 31, a disgraced former journalist who allegedly made the threats in January and February to harass and intimidate a former girlfriend.

At the same time, groups like the Anti-Defamation League also tracked dozens of incidents of graffiti and vandalism. 

In Philadelphia and St. Louis, headstones in Jewish cemeteries were toppled, and anti-Semitic graffiti popped up in New York and northern Virginia. 

The FBI briefed, and consulted with, the leadership of the JCC Association of North America on Thursday morning, said the group's president and CEO Doron Krakow in a statement. 

"We are troubled to learn that the individual suspected of making these threats against Jewish Community Centers, which play a central role in the Jewish community, as well as serve as inclusive and welcoming places for all – is reportedly Jewish," said Krakow. 

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Krakow said that the group was "gratified by the progress in this investigation" that included the FBI and other federal agencies, Israeli law enforcement, and local law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and Canada. 

Rockoff echoed these comments, saying that community members are "very grateful for the collaborative efforts of local, federal, and international law enforcement who have worked tirelessly on this matter."

"The support from all of you, the Tucson community and communities around the country has been very meaningful to us and has truly helped to navigate through this unsettling time," Rockoff said. 

Rockoff also said that the JCC would "remain vigilant and aware of the potential for ongoing incidents."  

"As always we take the safety and security of our families, our community, and our staff as a top priority," he said. 

Following the bomb threat, Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild called the threat it a "terrorist act." 

"The dramatic increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes we've been seeing nationally touched Tucson this week, when a bomb threat was called in against the JCC. Fortunately, no bomb was found and no one was injured," he said. "But the threat itself is a hate crime, and a terrorist act." 

Partly in response, the Tucson City Council passed a local hate crimes ordinance, which amended a city law to "define and prohibit misdemeanor hate crimes." While the State of Arizona has a felony hate crimes law, the city ordinance would define a hate crime as any misdemeanor offense linked, among other charges assault, criminal damages, threats and intimidation, and graffiti that is "motivated by malice" toward protected groups, including religion, color, and national origin. 

The ordinance establishes certain minimum penalties for these acts, including mandatory jail time of at least 10 days for the first offense 

Rothschild noted that after the November election there was "an increase in crimes" targeting minority groups, including Jews, Muslims, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community. 

This week, the Tucson City Council voted to pass a new ordinance to target hate crimes and a minimum $100 fine. 

"The Tucson Police Department will work vigorously with our federal and state partners to apprehend the people behind any hate crimes. These acts are un-American and must stop," Rothschild said. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

The Jewish Community Center in Tucson was one of nearly 150 Jewish institutions that received a bomb threat this year, as part of a wave of threats that may be, in part linked to a Israeli-American teenager.