An Israeli-American teenager is suspected of calling in bomb threats against Jewish community centres across the United States.
Israeli police on Thursday arrested the 19-year-old who holds citizenship in both Israel and the US. The FBI worked in tandem with Israeli national police over the span of several months.
“Investigating hate crimes is a top priority for the FBI, and we will continue to work to make sure all races and religions feel safe in their communities and in their places of worship,” FBI spokeswoman Samantha Shero told The New York Times.
The Anti-Defamation League has recorded more than 120 bomb threats against Jewish community centres across the US since 9 January, elevating fears of anti-Semitism in the country.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the suspect, who comes from the south of Israel, used “advanced camouflage technologies” to cover his tracks and mask the origin of his calls and other communications to synagogues, community buildings and public venues.
He added the suspect sent dozens of threats to public venues, synagogues, and centres in the US, New Zealand and Australia. The suspect also sent threats to Delta Airlines in 2015, forcing one flight to make an emergency landing.
The arrest is separate from the case of a St Louis man who was arrested earlier this month for threatening eight Jewish centres. Authorities said the man was attempting to harass his former girlfriend.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions also issued a statement commending law enforcement for their work in the joint investigation.
“Today’s arrest in Israel is the culmination of a large-scale investigation spanning multiple continents for hate crimes against Jewish communities across our country,” he said. “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.”
A 19-year-old Israeli Jewish man has been arrested in Israel on suspicion of making multiple bomb threats to Jewish organisations and an airline in the US and elsewhere.
The unnamed individual – who lives in Israel, reportedly in the southern city of Ashkelon, but has joint US-Israeli citizenship – was arrested at the request of the FBI, which has been examining a wave of threats against Jewish centres.
The arrest took place after a months-long undercover investigation by an Israeli police unit specialising in cybercrime.
Police seized a number of computers as well as other equipment during the arrest. Micky Rosenfeld, an Israeli police spokesman, said the motives behind the threats were unclear.
Rosenfeld alleged the suspect was “the guy who was behind the JCC threats” – referring to Jewish community centres – and said advanced technologies had been used to mask the origin of calls and communications to synagogues, community buildings and public venues.
“He didn’t use regular phone lines. He used different computer systems so he couldn’t be backtracked,” Rosenfeld said. The suspect also made threats in New Zealand and Australia, Rosenfeld alleged.
According to a recording acquired by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, in one call to the airline Delta the caller is heard threatening to kill Jews onboard a flight.
The suspect’s lawyer said her client suffers from a “very serious” medical condition that may have affected his behaviour. Galit Bash told reporters outside a courthouse that the young man’s condition had prevented him from serving in the army or going to school. The medical condition could “affect the investigation”, Bash added.
The US Anti-Defamation League has tallied 166 hoax bomb threats to Jewish schools, synagogues and cultural centres since 9 January. There has also been a spate of vandalism in Jewish cemeteries, leading to fears of rising antisemitism in the US.
The Trump administration was accused of not speaking out quickly enough on the threats, though last month the White House denounced them and rejected “antisemitic and hateful threats in the strongest terms”.
Despite efforts to mask the source of the calls, police investigators in New Zealand and Australia were able to identify the IP address of the computer used as being inside Israel. According to some reports, the equipment used included a large antenna and unusually sophisticated computer hardware. The caller also used technology to alter the sound of their voice.
An Israeli police official said sophisticated methods were used. Yaniv Azani, the head of technology in the Israeli police’s cyber unit, said several different means were used “to camouflage the various layers of communication mechanisms” to carry out the calls.
According to Nimrod Vax, a co-founder of the US-Israeli cybersecurity company BigID, the phone calls required a level of sophistication but were “not too difficult” for an experienced hacker.
Rosenfeld said the investigation was carried out with the help of the FBI and police from other countries.
The suspect is the second person to be arrested in connection with the hoax bomb threats in the US. Earlier this month, Juan Thompson, a former journalist, was arrested in relation to eight of the bomb threats. Federal officials said some of the calls were made in the name of Thompson’s former partner as part of a campaign to harass and intimidate her.
Commenting on Thursday’s arrest, Israel’s public security minister, Gilad Erdan, said: “We hope that this investigation will help shed light on some of the recent threats against Jewish institutions, which have caused great concern both among Jewish communities and the Israeli government.”