Behind the spectacle of packed beaches and boardwalks at the Jersey Shore lies a very real threat: terrorism.
At a hometown security initiative seminar in Avalon on Wednesday, Cape May County Prosecutor Robert Taylor told an audience of law-enforcement officers and the public that the possibility of terrorism is real, no matter where you live.
The seminar featured members of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, the State Police, the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office and the Cape May County Office of Emergency Management.
“There’s an attitude out there of ‘It can’t happen here, this is Cape May County,’” Taylor said. “You can’t sit around and say, ‘Well, it only happens in Paris, in only Nice. … It can happen anywhere.”
Law-enforcement officials in the county were put on high alert Sept. 17 after a pipe bomb exploded inside a trash can in Seaside Park, Ocean County, said Marty Pagliughi, the director of the Cape Office of Emergency Management and Avalon’s mayor.
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That day, he got a call from the Prosecutor’s Office saying officials investigating the explosion had reason to believe the bombing was a diversion for a bigger attack and that the target may be the firefighters convention that was going on at the Wildwoods Convention Center.
Later that day, a pressure-cooker bomb filled with shrapnel exploded in Manhattan.
“The intelligence that came down was right; there was a primary target, but it was New York City,” Pagliughi said.
The incident was not the first time Cape May County has dealt with a potential terror threat.
Sept. 11, 2001, hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi came to the area to sign up for flight lessons at the Cape May Airport and used an ATM machine on the Wildwood Boardwalk before flying United Flight 175 into the World Trade Center’s South Tower, Taylor said.
He ended up taking flight lessons in Florida.
In 1993, the FBI raided a North Wildwood hotel to arrest Matarawy Mohammed Saleh, who was convicted of a plot to bomb bridges and tunnels in New York. He served two years in prison before being deported. The raid was reported by The Press of Atlantic City at the time it occurred.
In 2007, two of the six people arrested in a plot to attack Fort Dix were allegedly looking at Cape May Harbor, specifically the U.S. Coast Guard Base, before choosing Fort Dix as the target, Taylor told the panel and audience of several dozen people.
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Now, Taylor said, some of the potential things they look for are “ramming,” or a terrorist using a truck to run over people in a crowded place as in a July 2016 attack in Nice, France, that killed 86 people and injured another 458.
“We look at what we call ‘soft targets,’” Taylor said. “Whether that be the convention center, a movie theater, the Boardwalk or a school. We train to protect them.”
Maj. Frederick Fife, a commanding officer with the N.J. State Police, said the best thing the public can do is report any suspicious behavior to the police.
“If you see something, say something,” he said, adding that it’s not about what people are wearing, what color their skin is or what religion they practice. “It’s about what they are doing.”
Pagliughi and Taylor said their intention is not to scare anyone or to discourage any municipalities from scheduling tourist events.
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“We’re here not to discourage big events,” Pagliughi said. “We’re here to bring everybody together to put these events together in a smarter way.”