L.A. synagogues beef up security as terrorist trial opens

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LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles police officers are visiting Jewish synagogues, schools and other institutions to urge an extra measure of alertness while an Islamic extremist is on trial in the downtown federal courthouse.

The defendant in the high-profile case is Ahmed Ressam, a 33-year old Algerian accused of conspiring with other Islamic militants to bomb Seattle and other U.S. cities during millennium celebrations.

"I want to stress that we know of no plans or threats targeting specific institutions," Deputy Chief of Police David Kalish said.

Each of the city's 18 area police control centers has developed an operational plan to contact institutions in its jurisdiction to review security measures, he said.

"Our contacts include airports and transportation hubs, but in this case Jewish institutions are at the top of our list," Kalish said. He added that a considerable number of Jewish places had been contacted, but he did not know how many.

Kalish emphasized repeatedly that there is no cause for panic or undue anxiety, but that the police would be remiss if it did not plan for all possible contingencies.

At the least, the police visits allow Jewish institutions to renew their relationships with local officers and review security plans, he said.

An officer who visited the offices of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal asked if any threats had been received, checked on emergency phone contacts, asked how many people were working in the office and urged that any suspicious individuals and packages be reported to police.

Major Jewish organizations were highly reluctant, perhaps understandably, to have their names linked to security concerns.

The Jewish Federation acknowledged only that a police visit had taken place, as did the Freda Mohr Center of the Jewish Family Service. Organizations that normally maintain a high level of security, such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League, said they had not received police visits.

However, regional ADL director David Lehrer commented that "the nature of such a trial in Los Angeles should heighten all our sensitivities."

Ressam was arrested Dec. 14, 1999 as he drove a car loaded with high explosives and other bomb material off the ferry from Canada into Washington state.

He is alleged to have trained in camps run by terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and to have conspired to bomb the Space Needle in Seattle, and possibly airports in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Seattle officials took the threats seriously enough to cancel plans for the city's New Year's Eve 2000 festivities.

The trial was transferred from Seattle to Los Angeles due to concern about security in Seattle's aging courthouse and the likelihood that Ressam might not be able to receive a fair trial because of massive publicity about the case.

Ressam's trial, which started March 12, is expected to last more than three weeks and involve more than 100 witnesses.

The local FBI office has not been notified of any threats and has not issued any heightened security alerts in connection with the trial, spokeswoman Laura Bosley said.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent