CHICAGO (WLS) — Terrorism and hatred have created a threat matrix that targets all of our freedom of religion and expression. Those essential American constitutional rights now require essential and elaborate protection.
That is happening at a closely guarded location in Chicago.
The I-Team went inside for a rare look at what America’s Jewish community is doing to protect their own people, property and in many cases, all of us.
“The unfortunate reality is the bad guys only need to get it right once. We have to get it right 100% of the time,” said Mike Masters, CEO & National Director of Secure Community Network.
Masters is the former Cook County Homeland Security Chief and now at the helm of non-profit Secure Community Network, or SCN.
Their mesmerizing command center is buried in SCN, touted as the official safety and security organization for the Jewish community in North America.
There are Jewish facilities being monitored in all 50 states and Puerto Rico totaling well over 12,400 facilities.
The new advanced intelligence center was developed with a team of technologists and academics following the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history; the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, four years ago Thursday, in which a gunman opened fire, killing 11 people and wounding six.
“I think we unfortunately need to assume that any facility, any organization in our community is a potential target,” said Masters.
When a situation is tagged, significant intelligence and credible threats are shared with police and other agencies along with community members.
The 24 hour operation keeps close tabs on social media and the dark web where violent radicals look to communicate anonymously.
SCN also embeds its security directors and advisers in areas with large Jewish populations.
What’s being flagged is anything that could impact the Jewish community and beyond.
“Could be an armed robbery happening at a Jewish Day School. Could be vandalism at a synagogue, could be social unrest to protests, activity of some kind impacting a Jewish facility. And then these guys go to work analyzing it and working with the local security director,” Masters said.
Chicago has long been at the core of America’s hate groups and terror matrix. The past few decades terrorist training tactics honed in the Middle East were deployed to secret Hamas camps scattered through the Midwest.
The Chicago skyline was on the original Al Qaeda aircraft hit list and inexplicably spared on 9/11; then the area was an Isis target in 2010 until federal agents intercepted bombs in printer cartridges destined for Chicago synagogues.
Those are among the reasons that analysts with security pedigrees from FBI, NASA, Facebook and more come to SCN.
Over the course of the last six months members of the SCN team said they have analyzed over 227,000 risk events.
The most recent FBI data reveals more than half of religiously motivated hate crimes across the country are directed at the Jewish community, which in turn makes up only a fraction of the U.S. population.
I-Team data analysis from police records shows that for the past three years more than 50% of religious based hate crimes in Chicago targeted Jews.
Retired CPD deputy chief Matt Tobias now heads security at Lakeview’s Anshe Emet Synagogue and the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School.
“Security can be a little unnerving,” he said, “however if you do it in the right way you can be safe and welcoming.”
Tobias said the partnership with SCN is invaluable.
“Really counts on everybody across the nation reporting suspicious activity or threats to them and to get it on the radar and to do some investigating to find out who are we dealing with?” he said.
Secure Community Network’s comprehensive program also includes on-site security training and active shooter drills.
Inside the organization’s headquarters are two chairs, examples of everyday objects that can be used as protection.
One chair, riddled with holes from bullets, is from the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
“Those are bullet holes from the AR-15 used by the offender, in that case who entered the synagogue and killed 11 members of that synagogue,” explained Masters.
The second chair is from a more recent synagogue attack in Colleyville, Texas last January.
An armed man held hostages inside Congregation Beth Israel for more than 10 hours livestreaming radical rants. In a bold move, when he thought the gunman’s guard was down, a rabbi picked up a chair and threw it, giving the hostages enough time to escape.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker said he spotted the key moment based on training from SCN.
“You need to act in moments where your life is threatened. And so I wouldn’t have had the courage, I would not have had the know-how or what to do without that instruction,” said Cytron-Walker.
Houses of worship concerned that they are at high risk for attack may qualify for government funds. FEMA’s non-profit Security Grant Program helped underwrite the cost of protecting against faith-based threats.
“The United States is still the safest place in the world to be Jewish, but the rising level of hate over the last two decades has required us to create this sort of apparatus. We work with other faith based groups. I think many of them are beginning to see the absolute need for this type of organization,” said Masters.
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