As US-Iran tensions escalate, Jews are warned they could be targeted

As US-Iran tensions escalate, Jews are warned they could be targeted

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech at a ceremony in Tabriz, Iran, Aug. 1, 2019. (Presidency of Iran/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech at a ceremony in Tabriz, Iran, Aug. 1, 2019. (Presidency of Iran/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In 1992, Israel killed Abbas al-Musawi, a founder of the Hezbollah terrorist group in Lebanon, in a dramatic helicopter attack. Iran, Hezbollah’s primary funder, threatened to retaliate – talk that was somewhat expected for a country that routinely calls for the destruction of Israel.

But two years later, a suicide bomber drove a van loaded with explosives into the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 and injuring hundreds more. Multiple intelligence agencies have identified Hezbollah and Iran as the masterminds of the AMIA attack, and many now see the bombing as retaliation for the al-Musawi assassination.

So when Iran threatened a leading Washington think tank with sanctions and other unspecified measures over the weekend, it raised red flags. With tensions between the Unites States and Iran on the rise, U.S. government officials are warning Jewish communities across the country to be on the lookout for threats that could originate with Iran or its proxies, including the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.

The targeted Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which counsels hawkish policies toward Iran, certainly isn’t taking any chances.

“Law enforcement is taking a close look at the Islamic Republic’s threat against our think tank,” a foundation official told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Much of the recent Jewish security focus has been on white supremacists, but federal authorities have their eye on Iran.

A game of chicken in and near the Persian Gulf — the United States and its allies and Iran are targeting each other’s ships — could spill over into the United States, federal officials have warned Jewish community officials. Since its revolution in 1979, Iran has habitually taken hostilities to the backyards of its perceived enemies.

“We’re constantly monitoring and evaluating with our government partners the situations with recent activity and increased tensions, both in the rhetoric and activities in the Strait of Hormuz,” Michael Masters, the CEO of the Secure Community Network, the security arm of national Jewish organizations, said in an interview.

Several weeks ago, SCN had convened a call for Jewish security officials across the country with officials from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and the National Counterterrorism Center to discuss the potential threat from Iran and Hezbollah, Masters said.

The focus of the briefing, he said, was on physical and cyber threats, areas in which Iran and its proxies have carried out successful attacks.

“We’re working to protect the whole community,” Masters said.

An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment.

The potential threat from Iran bubbles beneath the main concern now preoccupying U.S. Jews and other minorities from white supremacists, who in the past year have committed massacres in El Paso and Pittsburgh, as well as deadly attacks elsewhere.

An FBI roundtable in June brought together Jewish, Muslim and Christian lay and clergy to exchange strategies on countering the white supremacist threat. White nationalists were the focus of hours of briefings and talks. Notably, however, the day ended with a warning from a Homeland Security official about a heightened threat from Iran and Hezbollah.

Masters noted the indictment last year of two Iranian citizens caught surveilling the Rohr Chabad House in Chicago, as well as repeated suspected cyberhacking attempts on Jewish institutions.

“We’re reminding people to be vigilant about access control” to computers and computer networks, he said.

SCN has distributed to Jewish organizations two fliers with instructions on cyber safety. One, on “phishing” scams that use fake emails to extract a recipient’s personal information, advises Jewish officials to watch out for generic email subject lines (“urgent email”), bad grammar and suspicious attachments.

The Trump administration has also in recent months has enhanced security cooperation with allies in Latin America, where Hezbollah maintains a presence.

In May, a jury in Manhattan federal court convicted a New York man, Ali Kourani, of seeking targets in New York City for terrorist attacks. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Kourani was “recruited, trained, and deployed by Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad Organization to plan and execute acts of terrorism in the United States.”

Cybersecurity experts believe that Iran in recent years has launched phishing scams aimed at garnering information — including names and addresses of potential targets — from a variety of institutions.

Sometimes the threat is overt.

The Mehr News Agency, a quasi-official Iranian news outlet, on Saturday quoted the Iran Foreign Ministry as saying that it would sanction the Foundation for Defense of Democracies under a 2017 law. Also named was the think tank’s CEO, Mark Dubowitz.

“Accordingly, taking any actions by the judicial and security apparatuses against the FDD and their Iranian and non-Iranian accomplices will be considered legitimate as their actions are against the Iran’s national security and the interests of Iranian people and government,” Mehr said.

The report did not specify what “actions by the judicial and security apparatuses” might be deployed.