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Jewish community hopeful bomb threats will end after arrest of 19-year-old

A 19-year-old Israeli Jewish man is the primary suspect in a string of bomb threats targeting centers in the U.S. (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)

Leaders of Baltimore's Jewish community said Thursday they were hopeful the bomb threats against their centers would stop now that Israeli police have arrested a 19-year-old accused of making a series of such threats across the world.

"Hopefully this arrest will bring an end to the threats," Barak Hermann, chief executive officers of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore, said in a statement. "Rest assured we will continue to provide the same level of security and safety at all of our facilities."

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Marc Terrill, president of The Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, said Thursday he was on a call with federal Homeland Security officials about the arrest. While they "did not say anything conclusive, I was led to believe there was a direct connection" to threats against Baltimore-area centers, he said.

"We're hoping this closes the chapter on this wave of unfortunate terror threats," Terrill said. "It was wonderful news to hear an arrest has been made. I applaud the efforts of law enforcement to bring this person to justice."

Israeli police on Thursday arrested a 19-year-old Israeli Jewish man as the primary suspect in a string of bomb threats targeting Jewish community centers and other institutions in the U.S., marking a potential breakthrough in the case.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld described the suspect as a hacker, but said his motives were still unclear. Israeli media identified him as an American-Israeli dual citizen and said he had been found unfit for compulsory service in the Israeli military.

"He's the guy who was behind the JCC threats," Rosenfeld said, referring to the dozens of anonymous threats phoned in to Jewish community centers in the U.S. over the past two months.

The local branch of the FBI, which had taken part in the investigation, confirmed the arrest but did not say whether the 19-year-old is connected to the Baltimore cases.

"Early this morning in Israel, the FBI and Israeli National Police worked jointly to locate and arrest the individual suspected for threats to Jewish organizations across the United States and in other parts of the world," the agency said in a statement. FBI officials said they could not provide more detail.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, there have been more than 150 bomb threats against Jewish community centers and day schools in 37 states and two Canadian provinces since Jan. 9. Those threats led to evacuations of buildings, upset Jewish communities and fear of rising anti-Semitism. The threats were accompanied by acts of vandalism on several Jewish cemeteries.

Jewish Community Center facilities in the Baltimore area have received four emailed threats this year.

The JCC facilities in Owings Mills and on Park Heights Avenue in Baltimore were swept by law enforcement and cleared by bomb-sniffing dogs after receiving bomb threats.

The Park Heights facility has twice been targeted with phone bomb threats, and the Owings Mills facility targeted once. Similar threats have hit JCCs and Jewish day schools across the country. All have been determined to be hoaxes.

U.S. Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland thanked the FBI and intelligence officers who "worked diligently to track down and apprehend this individual who is alleged to have been behind these threats to Jewish institutions."

"The recent threats have been deeply disturbing not only to the Jewish community but well beyond," he said in a statement. "Religious-based threats, whether anti-Semitic or targeted at other religions, are criminal and fan the flames of extremism that tears apart societies."

U.S. authorities have also arrested a former journalist from St. Louis for allegedly threatening Jewish organizations. Juan Thompson has been indicted in New York on one count of cyberstalking.

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But Israeli police described the local man as the primary suspect in the wave of threats.

Israeli police said the suspect made dozens of calls claiming to have placed bombs in public places and private companies, causing panic and "significant economic damage," and disrupting public order, including by the hurried evacuations of a number of public venues around the world. The man is suspected of placing threatening phone calls to Australia, New Zealand and also within Israel.

Rosenfeld said the man called Delta Airlines in February 2015 and made a false threat about explosives aboard a flight from JFK airport in New York. The threat allegedly led to an emergency landing.

Rosenfeld said the man, from the south of Israel, used advanced technologies to mask the origin of his calls and communications to synagogues, community buildings and public venues. He said police searched his house Thursday morning and discovered antennas and satellite equipment.

"He didn't use regular phone lines. He used different computer systems so he couldn't be backtracked," Rosenfeld said.

After an intensive investigation in cooperation with FBI representatives who arrived in Israel, as well as other police organizations from various countries, technology was used to track down the suspect, Rosenfeld said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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