Michael C. Kotzin is a longtime Jewish communal professional and former professor of English Literature at Tel Aviv University. He has been an executive at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago since 1988 and is the author of the recently published On the Front Lines in a Changing Jewish World: Collected Writings 1988 – 2013. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
Sitting at my desk at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago on October 29, 2010, I handled two urgent phone calls in short order. One was from the FBI, the other from the Department of Homeland Security. Both involved a warning following upon the interception of cargo planes with explosive-laden packages – one at the UK’s East Midlands Airport, the other at the Dubai Airport – both of them addressed to synagogues in Chicago.
Based on the intelligence information that had led to the interception of those packages, nothing more was believed to have been sent. But I was asked to be sure that security precautions were in place at our building and to notify Chicago-area synagogues to be on alert for suspicious packages, especially for ones identified as originating from Yemen or from an organization that had the word Yemen in it. It was on a Friday, with Shabbat approaching, and colleagues and I were quickly in touch with the synagogues and with other local Jewish organizations as well.
More information about that day’s threat began to emerge as the story went public. The packages contained desktop printer cartridges in which explosives had been placed and timers set so the bombs most likely would go off when the planes were at or over Chicago or another American city to the east, if the flights were running late.
Thinking back about that incident at the time of the incidents in Paris earlier this year, I was struck by a number of parallels. The packages were shipped by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based terror group that later took credit for the Charlie Hebdo attack. Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Islamic radical operating out of Yemen, who was described as being behind the earlier incident, was also regarded as an inspiration for the Charlie Hebdo terrorists, though he was killed by an American drone strike over three years before the latter incident occurred. The belief that Chicago was deliberately targeted in October 2010 was reinforced by a photo of the city’s skyline in the then-current issue of Inspire, a slick AQAP publication said to have been originally created by al-Awlaki which was first published in July 2010, and it too has been talked about in connection with the Charlie Hebdo attack.
As it happens, the addresses that were used on the 2010 packages were no longer connected with the synagogues that were named. In one case, the building continued to exist, though changing neighborhood demographics and an aging population had led the congregation itself to be dissolved before the attack. In the other case, a mostly gay and lesbian congregation had moved to another locale.
Speculation was that AQAP was working from an old listing of Chicago synagogues. But the determination of the type of target where they chose to send the packages was revealing, as were the names of the individuals to whom the packages were supposedly being directed. One package bore the name of Diego Deza, who in the fifteenth century succeeded Torquemada as Grand Inquisitor during the Spanish Inquisition. The other package named as the intended recipient was Reynald Krak, a French knight of the twelfth-century Second Crusade, also known as Reynald of Châtillon, who was beheaded by Saladin. Both were famous enemies of the Muslims in past centuries.
And both no doubt were remembered by AQAP not only for their cruelty against Muslims but also for their association with movements that denied Muslims territory that they had previously ruled over and that they believed continued to belong to them. Each of these historic figures, it could be suggested, was meant as a type of the Americans and Jews regarded as today’s foremost enemies by radical Islam. The fact that Jews as well as Muslims were the primary victims of both the Crusaders and the Inquisition is an irony that was no doubt lost upon AQAP.
The identification of their self-narrative with particular historical events; the engagement in violence in religion-based conflicts over land and sovereignty; the use of terror to inflict physical, often lethal, harm and to create fear – these are basic beliefs and tactics of not only al-Qaeda and its branches but also other Islamist extremist groups and the individuals who are inspired by them, explaining why those who addressed the packages chose such otherwise puzzling names and destinations. Furthermore, the choice of what they thought were two synagogues as the designated targets of these packages fits a pattern we have continued to see stalking the globe today. The meaning of that particular kind of targeting – and of the rhetoric that accompanies it – however, has, I believe, received little attention beyond the Jewish community and beyond analysts and reporters – many of them Jewish – with a special interest in the topic. And that lacunae is a subject that I will examine in a continuation of this blog later this week.
Check back on Wednesday for Part II of “Radical Islamism’s War Against the Jews: Who Cares?”
- Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices: War and National Security edited by Elliot N. Dorff and Danya Ruttenberg
- Terror: How Israel Has Coped and What America Can Learn by Leonard A. Cole
- Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews by Mitchell Bard
Michael C. Kotzin is a longtime Jewish communal professional and former professor of English Literature at Tel Aviv University. He has been an executive at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago since 1988 and is the author of the recently published On the Front Lines in a Changing Jewish World: Collected Writings 1988 – 2013.