A Florida man was arrested last week for intending to use “a weapon of mass destruction” at a synagogue near Miami, according to federal authorities.
The FBI says the man never possessed an actual explosive weapon, but instead got an inert device from a bureau employee working undercover after a weeks-long probe.
Officials said that they began investigating James Gonzalo Medina in March after learning that he discussed wanting to attack a South Florida Conservative synagogue. Medina, 40, of Hollywood, Florida, was arrested Friday while carrying the device toward the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center, a facility that is also home to a Holocaust memorial and an education facility for children.
The synagogue’s leaders sought to reassure congregants and, even as news of the arrest spread through South Florida, they said their facilities were open on Monday for a normal day.
Rabbi Jonathan Berkun and the center’s executive director, Elliot B. Karp, said they were assured by security officials that “the synagogue and school were never at risk at any time” and were told no other credible threats had been found.
“Please be assured that our security protocols are well in place, which includes close coordination with local law enforcement agencies to insure the security of our facility and the safety of our members, children, staff and visitors,” Berkun and Karp wrote in a statement posted on Facebook. “We will continue to review our procedures in consultation with our security consultant and law enforcement officials to take whatever measures are necessary to insure the safety and security of our synagogue and members.”
They and other leaders from the center said they have already had security on their minds, mentioning that in the fall, the synagogue hired a security consulting firm to review their security measures.
The Turnberry Jewish Center is located in a busy stretch of South Florida, not far from the bustling Aventura Mall and a string of oceanfront hotels. There are about 800 families in the synagogue’s congregation, according to the center’s website.
In an FBI affidavit, authorities said that Medina had initially told a confidential federal source that he wanted to attack the center using AK-47 assault rifles. This federal source expressed concerns about the guns being traced or getting shot while going inside a synagogue with a rifle, suggesting instead “leaving an unspecified object behind,” the FBI said.
Medina then shifted his focus to leaving a bomb behind, the affidavit said. According to the FBI, its federal source suggested using a bomb that could be detonated by a cellphone and mentioned a contact who could get them everything they needed. The FBI’s source also suggested putting the bomb under a jacket and leaving it in a bathroom in the synagogue.
This source and Medina traveled to the synagogue to conduct surveillance, locate the center’s security cameras and figure out where he would be dropped off and picked up, according to the FBI. While Medina is quoted as saying he wanted to put the bomb in a bathroom, the FBI source instead suggested leaving it outside the building. The affidavit states that Medina wanted to go inside when a holiday service had already begun and, after depositing the bomb and leaving, have his car windows down so he could hear the explosion.
Medina is described by the FBI as having converted to Islam about four years earlier and wanting to attack a synagogue “because Jewish people are the ones causing the world’s wars and conflicts.” In a transcript of a recorded conversation with the FBI’s unnamed source, Medina states that he wanted to “strike back” against Jewish people, adding: “It’s a war, man, and it’s like it’s time to strike back here in America.”
When an FBI employee posing as someone who could deliver explosives to the plot asked Medina why he wanted to bomb the synagogue, Medina responded by saying it was his “call of duty” and something he had to do “for the glory of Allah.”
The FBI also allege that Medina wanted to make it look like the attack was sponsored in some way by the Islamic State, because he felt that “would go nationwide and inspire other Muslims to attack as well.” Medina is also quoted as saying: “Next thing you know it will be in California, Washington, and the brothers are saying you know, it’s our time now.”
He and the FBI’s source also discussed attributing the attack to al-Shabab, a militant group linked to al-Qaeda. The FBI’s source said they had to leave a claim of responsibility, something that “resembles of Arabic. … We could make it up.”
The FBI’s undercover employee is quoted in the affidavit as reminding Medina multiple times that the explosion could kill women and children, and asked him if he was sure he wanted to carry out the attack. At one point, Medina responded by saying: “I am pretty sure. I think so. I believe so. I’m ready, bro!”
Before he was arrested, Medina made videos on the cellphone belonging to the FBI’s source. In one, he said: “I’m going to handle business here in America. Aventura, watch your back. ISIS is in the house.” In another, he said goodbye to his family.
The FBI said that after Medina was arrested and read his rights, he admitted to wanting to bomb the synagogue and said his goal was to send a message.
Medina, who appeared in court Monday, was charged with a count of knowingly trying to use the weapon and could face life in prison. It was not immediately clear Monday if Medina had an attorney.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D), who represents a wide swath of South Florida that includes many congregants from the synagogue, noted that the arrest happened during the final days of Passover, a festival that concluded Saturday night.
“As the month of May begins and we recognize Jewish American Heritage Month, this attempted attack is a harsh reminder that there are many in our community who are motivated by bigotry and violence,” she said in a statement. “As a community and a nation we must work together to confront this kind of hatred.”
@2016 The Washington Post · Mark Berman