Israeli-US teen convicted of thousands of bomb threats, including against JCCs

Israeli-US teen convicted of thousands of bomb threats, including against JCCs

19-year-old from Ashkelon hoaxed Jewish centers, airports, hospitals and schools; told police he ‘liked to see people running around in panic’

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

The suspect brought for a court hearing at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate's Court, under suspicion of Issuing fake bomb threats against Jewish institutions around the world, on March 23, 2017.  (Flash90)
The suspect brought for a court hearing at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate's Court, under suspicion of Issuing fake bomb threats against Jewish institutions around the world, on March 23, 2017. (Flash90)

The Tel Aviv District Court on Thursday convicted an Israeli-American teenager of multiple counts of extortion for waging an intimidation campaign of bomb threats, including against Jewish Community Centers in the United States last year.

The 19-year-old Ashkelon native, whose name remains under gag order in Israel, has admitted to making some 2,000 fake bomb threat calls to hospitals, airlines, schools and various Jewish institutions out of boredom.

“I realize that this isn’t a game and I’m sorry,” he told police, according to court documents. “I like to see people running around in panic.”

Delivering the verdict in a closed-door session, Judge Zvi Gurfinkel rejected the defense’s claim that the teen was mentally unfit to stand trial, saying he was fully aware of the consequences of his actions.

“The defendant has changed his version of events multiple times according to what suits him the most,” the judge said. “He very much understands the significance of his actions.”

The 19-year-old was found guilty of hundreds of counts of extortion, publishing false information that caused panic, computer offenses and money laundering, among other charges.

The lawyer of the young Israeli hacker, suspected of sending bomb threats to Jewish facilities across the world, shows the court an image of a tumor in her client’s brain, at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court, on March 30, 2017. (Flash90)

Authorities say he made thousands of threatening calls, mostly to community centers and schools in the US, from January to March 2017, using an online calling service that disguised his voice and allowed him to hide his identity. He also targeted hundreds of airlines and airports, malls, and police stations, in the US, Canada, the UK, New Zealand, Australia and Britain, and tried to extort Republican State Senator Ernesto Lopez from Delaware.

In addition to the bomb threats, the unnamed teen offered his extortion services through an online black market. Court documents unsealed in August linked him to a post on the now-shuttered illicit marketplace AlphaBay advertising a “School Email Bomb Threat Service.” The ad offered to send customized threats to schools for $30, plus a surcharge if the buyer seeks to have someone framed.

His threats caused fighter jets to scramble, planes to dump fuel and make emergency landings, schools to evacuate, and numerous other chaotic consequences. In some cases, he allegedly threatened to execute children he claimed to be holding hostage.

The hoax bomb threats, which came in the midst of a far-right surge in the US, sent a chill through Jewish communities and raised fears of anti-Semitism.

The defendant’s parents have maintained their son has a brain tumor and is on the autism spectrum, and that those conditions affected his behavior.

Illustrative photo of police tape at the JCC in Nashville, Tennessee, after the community center received a bomb threat on January 9, 2017. (Screenshot: The Tennessean)

His lawyer told Israeli news outlets the teen has attempted suicide at least five times while in prison since his arrest last March. Earlier this year, he briefly escaped police custody after a hearing at a Jerusalem District Court.

In April, police said the defendant managed to make dozens more bomb threats against over 100 schools in Israel during the year he was incarcerated at the Nitzan Prison in Ramle.

‘A poor boy, not a criminal’

During Thursday’s proceedings, the defendant’s father told the court that his son’s ill health made him unfit to stand trial.

“There was no motive of hate or trying to make money,” he said. “The state [prosecutors] will say he has criminal motives, but that’s one big lie.

“He’s a poor boy, not a criminal,” he said. “His special problems need to be understood.”

But the court rejected the defense’s claim that his mental and physical disabilities rendered him unfit to stand trial. Court documents released on Thursday said mental health evaluations of the defendant determined he was highly intelligent and that while he was likely on the autism spectrum, he ultimately understood right from wrong.

The court said he told psychiatric professionals that he didn’t believe that he had done anything wrong, and that thanks to him, his victims experienced something “fun” they would not have otherwise. But in another test, he expressed remorse for making the calls, and admitted he was wrong.

G and S, the parents of alleged bomb hoaxer M, at their home in Ashkelon, with medical documents, one of the maps drawn by M, and an MRI of his brain, on the table in front of them, April 26, 2017 (DH/Times of Israel staff)

In his decision, Gurfinkel said the extensive efforts the teen used to cover his tracks, and the fact that he used the dark web to advertise his services, indicated that he was aware of the significance of his actions. The judge also noted that he he previously said he enjoyed watching the ensuing panic that his death threats caused.

“The defendant sowed terror and panic in a systematic and sophisticated way, all while concealing his identity, and disrupted the lives of many people whom he has threatened,” he said.

US charges

In addition to facing a possibly long jail sentence in Israel, the teen has also been indicted on hate crimes charges by the US Department of Justice that would carry a hefty prison term there.

In March, charges were lodged against him in Florida, Georgia, and Washington, DC; and US officials said he could face a maximum jail term of 20 years for hate crimes, 10 years’ imprisonment for each bomb threat, and a five-year sentence for other hoax and cyberstalking charges.

The Justice Department has not said whether the US would seek his extradition, but reports in Hebrew-language media over the last year claimed that Israel has refused a US request in favor of trying him at home.

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