By Tom Hays
NEW YORK — The New York Police Department has prepared plans to beef up security at the city's synagogues and other Jewish sites amid escalating tensions between Israel and Iran, officials confirmed Friday.
Concerns that Muslim extremist groups might retaliate against civilians in the city's Jewish community if Israel were to attack Iran's nuclear facilities prompted the NYPD to put together a response plan that includes deploying extra officers, including heavily armed Hercules Teams, to synagogues, Jewish community centers and Israeli diplomatic offices.
The nation's largest police department revealed for the first time this week that it took similar precautions in 2008 after Imad Mughniyeh, a senior Hezbollah commander, was killed in a car bombing in Syria. The group blamed Israel for Mughniyeh's death.
"Just in case there was some kind of retaliation in New York, we had an operational plan that was implemented within hours of knowing he was hit," Mitch Silber, a top NYPD intelligence analyst, said Friday at a briefing about security measures for the Jewish holiday of Passover.
There have been no specific threats reported against the city for the weeklong holiday, which starts at sundown Wednesday. But officials say the NYPD, since sharpening its focus on anti-terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, has kept a constant eye on militant groups like Hezbollah for signs they might attack the largest Jewish population outside of Israel.
More than seven years after the Sept. 11 attacks, "we know that counterterrorism is now a permanent part of our mission," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said at the briefing.
Both U.S. and Israeli military commanders have said in recent weeks that Iran, accused of being a sponsor of Hezbollah, is nearing nuclear capability.
Israeli officials have long identified a nuclear-armed Iran as the most serious threat to the Jewish state. While not directly threatening to take out Iran's nuclear facilities, Israel has refused to rule out a military option.
The tension has prompted the NYPD to "prepare for any retaliation that might happen within the region but more specifically in the West, and more specifically New York City," Silber said.
Hoping to get a better understanding of terror tactics, the department sent a three-member Intelligence Division team headed by Assistant Commissioner Lawrence Sanchez to Argentina in 2008 to confer with authorities about two notorious attacks there.
The first was the deadly 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy, which came after Israel assassinated a Hezbollah leader. The other was a 1994 community center bombing, purportedly organized by Mughniyeh, that occurred after Israel captured a Hezbollah leader in Lebanon.
The detectives were struck by how the attacks occurred on the other side of the globe within weeks of possible provocation - a quick turnaround that suggested reconnaissance on South America's largest Jewish community had been done much earlier in anticipation it would come in handy later.
The NYPD believes similar surveillance might have already occurred in New York.
Officials cite the expulsion in 2004 of two security guards at Iran's U.N. mission for photographing city landmarks and other "sensitive sites" on at last two occasions.
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Several months earlier two Iranian citizens were questioned while taking video images of the subway tracks. The pair claimed diplomatic immunity and were never charged with any wrongdoing.