South Florida

Terror and violence make places of prayer take this step

Priest details scary encounter at Spanish Monastery

The Rev. Gregory Mansfield speaks about about the decapitation an 875-year-old statue of King Alphonso VII at the Ancient Spanish Monastery in North Miami Beach on Thursday, June 23, 2016.
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The Rev. Gregory Mansfield speaks about about the decapitation an 875-year-old statue of King Alphonso VII at the Ancient Spanish Monastery in North Miami Beach on Thursday, June 23, 2016.

In 26 years with the FBI, Brenda Moxley did it all: Undercover work. Hostage negotiations. Murder investigations.

And, according to her LinkedIn page, counter-terrorism.

Moxley recently retired from the FBI to become the Greater Miami Jewish Federation's director of community security.

She has been tasked with helping her old agency minimize — if not prevent altogether — security threats against South Florida Jewish institutions, like the plot to blow up the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center in May.

"The rising threat of terrorism is not something people like to think about, but it's out there in the community," Moxley said. "Jewish schools, synagogues, day camps are all potential targets. That was a driving force behind establishing one entity” to address them all.

Federal agents arrested James Medina long before he could act out his destructive plan in Aventura, but the danger for places of worship — regardless of religion — isn't going anywhere.

In the seven weeks since, several South Florida mosques have been harassed, both in person and via email. And last Sunday, a man threatened to shoot up services at North Miami Beach's Ancient Spanish Monastery — after he decapitated an 875-year-old statue on church grounds, police said.

Violent threats are "definitely on the rise," said Shabbir Motorwala, who heads up the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations, known as COSMOS. "People are more cautious right now. They are worried about their children.”

Thankfully, none of these threats resulted in bloodshed, but recent history suggests it might be only be a matter of time.

That nightmare scenario was realized a year ago in the mass killing at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Authorities say Dylann Roof slaughtered nine Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal parishioners in a racist rampage. Roof has been indicted for the killings in both state and federal court, and faces the death penalty.

Following the Charleston shooting, the New Beginning Baptist Church in Miami Gardens hired security guards in addition to the cameras already in place at least one person on alert any time there is worship or people are gathering.

“Just in case anything erupted, we certainly want to have people in place so we can protect each other,” said Pastor Eric Readon. “None of us are exempt from this.”

Some terrorists are motivated by ideology. Others, like Roof, by hatred. And some are simply insane.

But figuring out Why? is secondary to those tasked with protecting the faithful. Who? Where? and How? are of more pressing concern to people like Moxley, who was the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Miami division when she retired.

There were 91 verified incidents of anti-Semitism in Florida in 2015, the Anti-Defamation League announced last week. That's a 30 percent increase over the year before.

There are nearly 90 Jewish organizations in Miami-Dade County, and the Federation hired Moxley to improve their critical security infrastructure, crisis management and education. She also serves as a liaison with local and federal law enforcement and Homeland Security.

"When people think about security, they think about extra police, more security guards," Moxley said. "It's about so much more. It's about making an assessment of the community's needs. To implement a plan that's very strategic in nature: intelligence sharing, crisis management."

Moxley was careful about providing too many specifics about the threats Jewish institutions have faced — and what has been done to combat them.

The Rev. Gregory Mansfield has a similar strategy.

Mansfield was leading the Prayers of the People at St. Bernard de Clairvaux Episcopal Church last Sunday when Jorge Arizamendoza, 33, of Maryland, burst in and threatened to kill the priest and any of the people who stayed behind, police say.

His presence wasn't a surprise. Three days earlier, Arizamendoza bought a $10 admission ticket and toured the monastery. When he left, he screamed at someone that they should not be conducting church and threw a rock at the church's electric sign at the front of the monastery, causing about $2,000 in damage.

The next day, at about 2 a.m., he was back, armed with a tool similar to a sledgehammer. Arizamendoza pried open a black iron gate, smashed the head of an ancient statue, and warned the monastery manager he'd be back.

For that reason, there were six police officers in uniform waiting at the monastery last Sunday.

But Arizamendoza was still able to make his way into the church and threaten to kill before his arrest. His charges included aggravated assault at a religious institution, disturbing religious assembly and two counts of criminal mischief at a place of worship.

"It's just indicative of how someone who is determined to get into a place is going to do that," said Mansfield, rector at the church, 16711 W Dixie Hwy. "When someone is determined to do harm ... they're going to make their way in."

Mansfield declined to discuss any new security measures in case of a repeat attack at the monastery, which he said is visited by about 50,000 people each year.

Motorwala wasn't nearly as cautious.

National events — like the rhetoric of presidential candidates or acts of terrorism committed by Muslims — often trigger new waves of threats toward Islamic places of worship, he said.

Just a few recent examples:

▪  Last week, a woman threatened to blow up the Islamic Foundation of South Florida in Sunrise. Police say Irina Bihary, 40, entered a prayer room with a cellphone with an exposed battery and an object wrapped in a brown paper bag and told those inside that they were all going to die.

▪  Someone vandalized the Husseini Islamic Center in Sanford shortly after the shooting in Orlando, spray-painting the hastag #stopthehate.

▪  The Islamic Center of Greater Miami in Miami Gardens received an email from someone in December who wrote "Islam is cancer. ... Islam is a disease. ... I will burn the Koran. ... I want to kill every Muslims [sic] around the world." The same week, someone painted "F--- Muslims" on a wall at Nur-Ul-Islam Academy in Cooper City.

COSMOS has helped secure increase police patrolling of the mosques, particularly during month of Ramadan, when people pray late at night, Motorwala said.

The Council on American Islamic Relations has provided security training to the Muslim community, instructing them on vigilance and how to report suspicious activities to local law enforcement agencies.

Plus, several mosques have hired private armed security guards to patrol high-risk areas.

"This is a time where people of faith hold together and realize how much our lives are intertwined," Mansfield said. "With faith, we join hands and we work together to make our churches and our community safe."

Adam H. Beasley: 305-376-3565, @AdamHBeasley

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