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Local police chiefs get antiterrorism training in Israel

By Evan Allen
Globe Correspondent / October 27, 2011

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Police chiefs from Newton, Framingham, and Belmont headed off last weekend for a weeklong counterterrorism seminar in Israel, funded by the Anti-Defamation League.

They are joining a dozen other senior law enforcement officials from the Northeast to network and get first-hand advice from Israeli security experts.

Though there have been no successful terror plots carried out in Massachusetts since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to the federal government’s Worldwide Incident Tracking System, officials say the trip is necessary to keep law enforcement up-to-date on terrorism prevention techniques.

Framingham Police Chief Steven Carl and Newton Police Chief Matthew Cummings said they will receive their regular salaries while in Israel; Belmont Police Chief Richard McLaughlin declined to comment.

“Homeland security begins with hometown security,’’ said Carl. “There are no particular cities or towns where terrorists congregate unless you want to stereotype them.’’

Carl pointed to the arrest last month of Rezwan Ferdaus in nearby Ashland as an example of the type of threat that could lurk anywhere in America.

“That’s right next door,’’ Carl said.

Ferdaus is accused of planning to attack the Pentagon and the US Capitol building using remote-controlled airplanes carrying explosives. He has pleaded not guilty.

The 15 seminar participants were scheduled to meet in Israel with police officials and first responders, including police along the Lebanon border, the head of security at Malcha Mall in Jerusalem, and officials at Hadassah Ein Karem Hospital, to learn about emergency preparedness. They also were to attend a briefing on airport security at Ben-Gurion airport.

Officers on the trip also planned to visit holy sites, and have an opportunity to learn about the region’s history. All costs, including meals, are covered by the ADL.

“Given the security situation in Israel and their experience in dealing with terrorist attacks against civilians, the Israeli authorities are uniquely equipped to discuss and share counterterrorism strategies with American law enforcement,’’ said Derrek Shulman, New England Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League, in an e-mail.

However, Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts, is skeptical.

“Training based on the security situation in Israel seems highly inappropriate for suburban police officers in Massachusetts, since the nature of the threat in Israel is unique to that country’s political context,’’ Rose said.

But Shulman says that the training focuses on policing, not politics, and that while there may be some strategies that American law enforcement can’t use that Israelis can, the emphasis is on techniques that can be shared.

“Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the scale of our work with law enforcement has increased significantly, and the greatest demand for ADL expertise has been in the area of training,’’ he said.

Though this is just the third seminar exclusively involving officers from the Northeast, the ADL has been bringing US law enforcement executives to Israel through its National Counterterrorism Seminar since 2004, he said.

While American officials going on the trip acknowledge the differences between the US and Israel, they say it is the heightened state of alert in Israel that makes it a good place to learn counterterrorism strategies.

“We would be failing our mission to protect the public from terrorism if we did not draw on the wisdom, experience, and knowledge of the people who have been doing this for decades, and doing it successfully,’’ said David Procopio, spokesman for the Massachusetts State Police, which sent a representative on the trip.

Procopio said that police already employ counterterrorism techniques drawn from countries that deal with terrorism threats on a regular basis.

He said that in airport security, especially, police use methods that were “developed after a review of practices in other nations that have dealt with terrorism, specifically Israel.’’ He declined to name specific tactics, citing security concerns.

“In Israel, they respond to these terrorist attacks and emergencies and use intelligence to prevent them on a daily basis every day,’’ said Carl. “They have perfected their response.’’

And antiterrorism, he said, isn’t just a concern of big cities.

On Monday, jury selection began in the federal trial of Tarek Mehanna, 29, a Sudbury man charged with conspiring to support Al Qaeda. Mehanna, an American citizen, was accused of conspiring to support terrorists and lying to investigators.

And on the eve of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, three hijackers slept in a hotel in Newton before heading the next morning for Logan Airport, where they boarded American Airlines Flight 11.

Talking one-on-one with first responders to terrorist attacks, Cummings says, will offer an invaluable glimpse into post-9/11 security. It’s training, he says, that would benefit any law enforcement official.

“It’s kind of like a doctor that doesn’t go back to school to learn the new techniques,’’ he said. “You don’t want him working on you.’’

Newton police already conduct antiterrorism planning, said Cummings, during the Boston Marathon, and for events like fireworks displays at which large groups of people congregate. And Newton has a large Jewish population, he said, which could make it a potential target for terrorists.

“Ultimately when something goes bad, I have to answer questions, and I can’t be the one who doesn’t have the answers at the time,’’ said Cummings.