Ohio man arrested for threatening attack on local synagogues.
Jackie Headapohl Managing Editor
A 21-year-old man from Holland, Ohio, was arrested by the FBI Friday, Dec. 7, for planning an attack on local synagogues. FBI agents arrested Damon M. Joseph after he took possession of two semi-automatic rifles to allegedly be used in his attack on two synagogues in Sylvania, a suburb of Toledo. Those two synagogues were Conservative Congregation B’nai Israel and Reform Temple Shomer Emunim, which both sit on the Jewish Community Center campus in Sylvania.
Joseph was charged last week in federal court with one count of attempting to provide material support to ISIS. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years behind bars.
“Damon Joseph was allegedly inspired by ISIS’ call to violence and hate. He planned to attack the victims, based on their religion, at a Toledo-area synagogue in the name of ISIS, and hoped that it would lead to the deaths of many and spread fear,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers.
“His alleged actions would be an assault on the liberties and respect for humanity we hold so dear. We will continue to make every effort to prevent such attacks from occurring.”
Genesis of a Terror Plan
Acting Special Agent in Charge Jeff Fortunato of the FBI’s Cleveland Division said, “In a matter of months, Damon Joseph progressed from radicalized, virtual jihadist to attack planner.”
From the affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Toledo, we know that earlier in 2018, Joseph drew the attention of law enforcement by posting photographs of weapons and messages in support of ISIS on his social media accounts, which led to multiple interactions between Joseph and undercover FBI agents.
Undercover agents reported that Joseph stated his support for ISIS and for violent attacks and operations. For example, on Oct. 21, Joseph expressed support for “martyrdom operations” and stated: “What must be done, must be done” and “There will always be casualties of war.”
On Oct. 30, Joseph and the undercover agent communicated regarding the mass shooting at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh. Joseph said: “I admire what the guy did with the shooting actually.” He added: “I can see myself carrying out this type of operation inshallah [God willing]. They wouldn’t even expect [an attack] in my area …”
On Dec. 2, he forwarded a document to undercover agents that laid out his plans for an attack, using the name “Abdullah Ali Yusuf” for himself. The document described plans to attack where the greatest number of people are gathered, inflict the most casualties during the attack and make sure no one escaped.
On Dec. 4, Joseph stated he was deciding between two synagogues in the area to attack. He stated the choice would depend on “which one will have the most people, what time and what day. Go big or go home.”
“What I’ve been thinking about since the arrest is what the headline would have been …”
— Rabbi Jeremy Pappas
The next day, Joseph met with an undercover FBI agent and discussed conducting a mass shooting at a synagogue. Joseph identified his targets and discussed the types of weapons he believed would be able to inflict mass casualties. He made written notes about the firearms he wanted and provided them to the undercover agent, stating he wanted AR 15s, AK 47, Glocks and ammunition.
On Dec. 6, Joseph met with an undercover agent in the Toledo area and stated it would be ideal to attack two synagogues, but that it was probably more realistic to only attack one. He also stated specifically that he wanted to kill a rabbi. Also on Dec. 6, Joseph wrote the name and address of the synagogue where the attack was to occur. He pulled up photographs of the inside of the synagogue and said he wanted the attack to begin in the sanctuary.
Later that day, the undercover agent told Joseph that he purchased rifles for the attack. The two met on Dec. 7 at a predetermined location and Joseph took a black duffel bag containing two semi-automatic rifles, which had been rendered inoperable by law enforcement officers so that they posed no danger to the public. Joseph was then arrested.
“On behalf of the citizens of Toledo, I would like to thank the FBI, Homeland Security, the Toledo Police Department and all law-enforcement agencies that played a role in helping to prevent a potential catastrophe,” said Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz in a statement. “We cannot tolerate hate directed toward people of Jewish faith or of any other religion, and last month’s mass killing at a Pittsburgh synagogue is a reminder of just how real this threat is.”
Close to Home
Physically, the targeted synagogues are less than 100 miles from Metro Detroit, but the threat hit even closer to home for local Rabbi Jason Miller, who is a visiting rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel, where he leads services for Jewish holidays. He very well could have been the rabbi Joseph “wanted to kill.”
“It’s pretty scary, especially after Pittsburgh,” Miller said. “There’s part of me that’s very much aware of heightened anti-Semitic feelings out there among fringe elements, but it’s not something that would keep me off the bimah.”
Miller said he’s spoken with other rabbis who feel they should be armed or, at the least, carry cell phones on Shabbat in case of emergency. “I’m against having guns but respect my colleagues’ rights to have a gun if they feel they need it to protect their congregants,” Miller said.
Although Miller doesn’t carry a cell phone on Shabbat, he said he will be having a conversation with the cantor he works with at B’nai Israel to decide if there should be a cell phone within reach on the bimah, if needed.
Miller stresses that B’nai Israel takes security very seriously, using local police officers in full uniform in front of the building. “I’ve always felt safe there,” he said. “But my eyes and ears will remain open, and I’ll certainly be more guarded, especially on the High Holidays.”
Chuck Traugott, administrator at Congregation B’nai Israel, and Lynn Nusbaum, administrator at Temple Shomer Emunim, told the Toledo Blade that representatives were in touch with local law enforcement.
“We continue beefing up our security,” Traugott said. “There’s nothing new about that.”
West Bloomfield native Rabbi Jeremy Pappas has been the ADL regional director of Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and the western half of Pennsylvania since September. Since he took on the role, he’s seen the mass killing in Pittsburgh, a hate crime killing in Kentucky and now, this foiled terror plot in Ohio. “It’s been quite the trial by fire,” Pappas said.
“What I’ve been thinking about since the arrest is what the headline would have been had the Justice Department not done the work they did. I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude,” he added.
Since Pittsburgh, he’s seen a huge spike in the incidents reported to the office. “We only know what we hear, so we’re tremendously grateful for the community’s willingness to report incidents to us,” he said.
The Regional ADL office maintains close relationships with the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office and was notified of Joseph’s arrest concurrently with the press briefing. “They keep us in the loop and we keep them in the loop,” Pappas said. “We’re grateful for that relationship.”
Pappas added that the last few months have shown him that the ADL Regional office needs “to grow and expand so that we have the bandwidth to respond to the incidents that occur in the community.”
Security Top of Mind
After the FBI’s announcement of Joseph’s arrest, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit issued an email to the community that read, “This incident, coming on the heels of the terrible massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, is a stark reminder of the virulence and danger of anti-Semitism in our society. It also reaffirms the critical need for vigilant and ongoing security throughout Jewish Detroit.”
The Federation stated that it raises more than $1 million a year to provide for the safety of schools, agency buildings and Jewish campuses in Metro Detroit. The Federation Community-Wide Security Department collaborates closely with partner agencies as well as with local and national law-enforcement entities — including the Secure Community Network, a national homeland security organization working on behalf of the American Jewish community.
It also said that a team of highly trained and experienced officers are stationed at local Jewish day schools, camps and campuses. The Federation’s security team also assists Jewish institutions across the community by providing training, consultation, education and advocacy.
“As the arrest in Toledo illustrates, the efforts of law enforcement and security teams can be highly effective at discovering and preventing terrorist attacks,” the Federation email stated. “And while there can never be a 100 percent guarantee, our investment in security personnel and technologies is clearly essential in maintaining our safety.”
If you have security concerns, call the Federation at (248) 642-4260 or the Michigan Regional ADL office at (248) 353-7553.