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?”

Relat­ed Content:

Michael C. Kotzin | Jew­ish Book Coun­cil

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.

Rad­i­cal Islamism’s War Against the Jews: Who Cares? (Part 1)

Rad­i­cal Islamism’s War Against the Jews: Who Cares? (Part 2)

Amer­i­can Jew­ish Writ­ers and Israel