The FBI has arrested one suspect in connection with the recent bomb threats against Jewish institutions and Jewish Community Centers, known as JCCs. According to the arrest warrant, a culprit in at least some of the threats is Juan Thompson, a St. Louis native who was fired from his job as a reporter at The Intercept in early 2016 for fabricating stories. The FBI alleged that Thompson “appears to have made some of the JCC threats as part of a sustained campaign to harass and intimidate” a former girlfriend. The details in the FBI arrest warrant against Thompson link him to eight specific threats. But they do not account for the much larger wave of phone calls threatening Jewish institutions.
The complaint tells the story like this. Somewhere in the period of 2015 and 2016, Thompson was in a relationship with a young woman working in the greater New York City area. During the summer of 2016, they broke up. Thompson started sending her false text messages and emails, claiming, for example, that he had been the victim of a shooting and was going to be taken off life support. He emailed her boss, saying she had a sexually transmitted disease. And he sent her nude photographs he had of her, threatening to release them to the public.
Faxes and emails started showing up at her work. One email, allegedly sent by an account that had been used by Thompson, claimed she had threatened to kill him. A series of faxes claimed she was an anti-Semite, and purported to provide evidence that she had made anti-Semitic statements on social media.
Investigators say Thompson sent tips about the woman to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, saying she watches child porn. When the New York Police Department contacted Thompson about these claims, he said his email had been hacked a few weeks prior, even though a month had elapsed since the claims were made. The NYPD warned him that his “conduct must stop,” and that he shouldn’t contact the woman.
Starting in January, investigators believe, Thompson made at least eight threats to Jewish institutions around the country. Some were made in the woman’s name. Others were made in his own name; he later claimed that she had made the calls in an attempt to falsely implicate him in the threats. These allegedly included threatening emails sent to the Jewish History Museum in Manhattan on January 28; Jewish schools in Farmington Hills, Michigan, and New York City on February 1; a JCC in New York City on February 7; and a threatening phone call to the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that tracks anti-Semitism, on February 22. He also allegedly emailed the Anti-Defamation League, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the JCC in San Diego claiming that the woman was anti-Semitic and planned to carry out violent attacks. These threats included various false details about bombs and explosives that had been planted in these Jewish institutions.
The criminal complaint also refers to Thompson’s Twitter account, where he allegedly wrote that he “[needs] to stop this nasty/racist #whitegirl I dated who sent me a bomb threat in my name & wants me to be raped in jail.” He went on to say that he had been visited by the FBI, and was “battling the racist FBI and this vile, evil, racist white woman.” He repeated the claim that she had been making the threats in an attempt to frame him.
While the story alleges a disturbing pattern of harassment and intimidation, it’s all the more complicated because of the context. Over the past two months, there have been at least 90 bomb threats made to 73 Jewish Community Centers and day schools, according to a statement the national JCC released on February 27. Three separate Jewish cemeteries have also been vandalized in Missouri, Pennsylvania, and New York. Jewish leaders across the country have condemned the broader set of attacks as part of a growing environment of anti-Semitism. As FBI Assistant-Director-in-Charge Sweeney said in a statement on Friday, “Thompson’s alleged pattern of harassment not only involved the defamation of his female victim, but his threats intimidated an entire community.”
Thompson’s past in journalism also makes the story complicated. The FBI arrest warrant shows a pattern of elaborate deception and fabrication. At least one of the email accounts used to send threats was allegedly “produced from a web-based, anonymous email generator.” Another account apparently belonged to someone else; the “true user” was unaware that these messages had been sent. These behaviors are similar to those reported by The Intercept last year, when they found that Thompson “fabricated several quotes in his stories and created fake email accounts that he used to impersonate people.”
It should go without saying that this is not the standard in journalism—Thompson was fired and a number of his articles were taken down after editors found that he had been fabricating information. On Friday, The Intercept released a statement saying it is “horrified” by the allegations against Thompson and has no independent information about his actions or arrest. Josh Marshall, the editor and publisher of Talking Points Memo, said in an email that he never worked with Thompson directly, and pulled the one freelance piece Thompson published on the site when Thompson was fired from The Intercept.
Vice President Pence visited the cemetery in Missouri where gravestones were toppled to demonstrate the White House’s support for the Jewish community there. And President Trump condemned these attacks in strongly worded terms during his address to Congress this week. On Tuesday, though, Trump allegedly told state attorneys general that these attacks are sometimes “the reverse,” seeming to suggest that they might be carried out by people who wish to create the appearance of increased anti-Semitism.
That doesn’t appear to be what motivated Thompson. But his arrest still serves as a useful reminder that not all destructive acts are what they initially appear to be. His actions also fit within a broader pattern, in which angry individuals tend to latch onto ambient hatreds, or imitate the crimes of others. Anti-Semitism has long been a pervasive problem in the United States, and it has thrived among people on both the left and the right of American politics. Even if Thompson doesn’t have personal animus against Jews—something that’s unclear at this point—he apparently saw these kinds of threats as an effective way to create fear and inflict maximal pain on his ex. Whatever Thompson’s motives, his threats hit a specific community, and created real anguish and disruption. Law-enforcement officials seem to believe Thompson’s were “copycat” threats, purposefully and falsely made to appear part of the bigger wave, according to reports from NBC. The models of anti-Semitic intimidation and fear were there. All he had to do was follow them.