Early signs of a threat to shoot down a synagogue in Manhattan were discovered Friday morning, not by law enforcement, but by an online security analyst working in a Manhattan office building.
A Twitter user named @VrilGod posted a series of alarming tweets that were caught by the analyst’s filters used to identify potential online threats.
In a post, the user warned: “Big steps will be taken on Friday.”
In another, the user wrote, “I’m going to ask a priest if I should become a husband or shoot a synagogue and die.”
Another message – “This time I’m really going to do it” – seemed to reinforce the threat of an attack, which the user indicated could be carried out at 10 p.m. Friday night, along with a willingness to “die by the police” .
When the analyst saw these tweets, “alarm bells went off,” said his boss, Mitchell Silber, who leads the Community Security Initiative for New York’s UJA Federation. They resulted in a police investigation that ended in the arrest of Christopher Brown, 21, and Matthew Mahrer, 22, just before midnight on Friday at Pennsylvania Station.
Incidents of harassment and violence against Jews and Jewish institutions have increased nationwide and have only intensified as celebrities such as rapper Kanye West, who goes by the name Ye, and basketball player Kyrie Irving come under fire for anti-Semitic posts on social media. This month, federal investigators issued a rare warning about a security risk in New Jersey synagogues and questioned a man who held “radical extremist views.”
On Tuesday, New York city and state authorities announced heightened security at synagogues and other Jewish institutions entering a long Thanksgiving weekend and Hanukkah approaching on Dec. 18.
Governor Kathy Hochul directed state police to step up surveillance and increase support for communities that are potential targets of hate crimes. She also signed legislation requiring people convicted of hate crimes to receive sensitivity education and training, and launched a new campaign under the state’s Human Rights Department to promote inclusion and tolerance.
In New York City, Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell said her department would respond by “deploying resources strategically to sensitive locations.” She praised the work of her department and other law enforcement agencies.
Analysts in the team of Mr. Silber, who contacted authorities about the threat, monitored filters that scoured the Internet for possible local attacks using search terms such as “Jewish, New York, synagogue, kill, shoot and die,” said Mr. Silber, a former director of intelligence analysis with the New York City Police Department. The initiative arose after the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, he said in an interview Tuesday.
The filters search mainstream social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as other chat forums, including 4Chan, 8chan, Gab.com and Telegraph, he said.
The Friday morning tweets, from an account linked to Mr Brown, stood out from the online anti-Semitic banter his analysts comb through daily because “they talked about action” and included a time and day, Mr Silber said.
Initially, the tweets indicated that the threat might be on Long Island, so the advisers immediately alerted law enforcement there. By early afternoon, the security team found additional online profiles seemingly related to Mr. Brown that listed other threats, Mr. Silber said.
And by 2 p.m. it became clear that the threat could be in New York City, whereupon Mr. Silber alerted the city police.
“We basically told them, ‘We know you’re getting a lot of income, but you have to pay attention to this,'” he said.
In a statement, Commissioner Sewell said the department’s “exhaustive intelligence gathering led to the arrest”.
“Working with their law enforcement partners,” the statement said, the department’s Joint Terrorism Task Force with the FBI, as well as the Counterterrorism and Intelligence Bureau “discovered a growing threat to the Jewish community on Friday and moved quickly to gather intelligence, identify those behind it and operationally neutralize their ability to inflict damage.”
At 9:30 p.m. Friday, police sent a widely circulated “be on the lookout” warning and a photo of Mr Brown to officers’ cell phones.
A full-scale manhunt was underway and the two men were arrested before midnight by two “sharp-eyed” Metropolitan Transportation Authority officers as they pulled into Penn Station, Commissioner Sewell said.
They were charged with crimes including criminal possession of weapons and making a terrorist threat.
Authorities seized an eight-inch military-style knife and an illegally seized pistol with a magazine of 30 rounds from Mr Brown, who they say was also in possession of a swastika arm patch and ski mask.
Police said Mr Brown had a history of mental illness and had recently expressed an interest in coming to New York to buy a gun. Mr Brown also told authorities that he ran a white supremacist Twitter group and that Mr Mahrer was one of his followers.
Lawyers for both men did not immediately comment on Tuesday.
On Saturday, Mr. Brown the police that he and Mr. Mahrer had first gone to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue to “get the blessings” before being told by a friend of Mr. Mahrer were driven to Pennsylvania to buy a gun.
The reference to a priest’s blessing in one of the tweets analysts discovered on Friday helped convince them that the threats were serious.
“The fact that someone is talking about a specific time and a specific day, and that they are going to a religious authority, all suggested that they wanted some degree of approval for what they wanted to do,” said Mr. Silver. “And the fact that they were willing to die at the hands of the police.”
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