Police Say Suspects in N.Y. Bomb Plot Acted Alone

The New York Times/May 22, 2009

The four men arrested Wednesday night in what the authorities said was a plot to bomb two synagogues in the Bronx and shoot down military planes at an Air National Guard base in Newburgh, N.Y. were petty criminals who appeared to be acting alone, not in concert with any terrorist organization, the New York City police commissioner said Thursday.

The men were arrested in an elaborate sting operation at around 9 p.m. on Wednesday after planting what they believed to be bombs in cars outside the Riverdale Temple, a Reform synagogue, and the nearby Riverdale Jewish Center, an Orthodox synagogue.

The men did not know that the bombs, obtained with the help of an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, were fake.

In a news conference at the Riverdale Jewish Center, one of the two synagogues said to be the targets of the plot, the commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, offered new details about the four defendants - James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen - all of whom are to arraigned in Federal District Court in White Plains, N.Y., later Thursday morning.

The men, all of whom live in Newburgh, about 60 miles north of New York City, had met in prison. Mr. Cromitie, 53, who authorities described as the plot’s leader, had lived in Brooklyn and had as many as 27 arrests for minor crimes both in upstate New York and in New York City, Mr. Kelly said. Mr. Cromitie, David Williams, and Onta Williams were native-born Americans, while Mr. Payen was born in Haiti and is a Haitian citizen.

The four men arrested are all Muslim, a law enforcement official said. Mr. Cromitie, whose parents had lived in Afghanistan before his birth, had told the informant that he was upset about the war in Afghanistan and that that he wanted to do "something to America." Mr. Cromitie stated "the best target" - the World Trade Center - "was hit already," according to the complaint.

Mr. Kelly said: "They stated that they wanted to commit jihad. They were disturbed about what was happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan, that Muslims were being killed. They were making statements that Jews were killed in this attack and that would be all right - that sort of thing."

"It speaks to our concern about homegrown terrorism," Mr. Kelly said.

The arrests capped what officials described as a "painstaking investigation" that began in June 2008 involving an F.B.I. agent who had been told by a federal informant of the men’s desire to attack targets in America. As part of the plot, the men intended to fire Stinger missiles at military aircraft at the base, which is at Stewart International Airport, officials said.

The charges against the four men represent some of the most significant allegations of domestic terrorism in some time, and come months into a new presidential administration, as President Obama grapples with the question of how to handle detainees at the Guantánamo Bay camp in Cuba.

In April, Mr. Cromitie and the three other men, who were in their 20s and 30s, selected the synagogues and the air base as their targets. On May 6, the defendants traveled to a warehouse in Connecticut to obtain what they believed was a surface-to-air guided missile system and three improvised explosive devices, all of which were incapable of being fired or detonated. They then brought them back to a storage facility in Newburgh, the criminal complaint said.

Rabbi Jonathan I. Rosenblatt, the senior rabbi at the Riverdale Jewish Center, said the police informed him on Wednesday evening that his synagogue was a target of the plot, as well as the Riverdale Temple, a short distance away, on Independence Avenue. Outside the synagogues on Wednesday night, the streets were eerily quiet.

Rabbi Rosenblatt said in a phone interview Wednesday that he took the news with "shock, surprise - a sense of disbelief that something which is supposed to belong to the world of front pages and the evening news had invaded the quiet world of our synagogue."

Jonathan Mark, associate editor of The Jewish Week newspaper who grew up in Riverdale, said it would have been the third plot in the past decade against the synagogues in Riverdale.

The plot unfolded Wednesday night as one of the suspects placed what he believed were homemade bombs - each equipped with about 37 pounds of inert C-4 plastic explosives - into separate vehicles parked outside the synagogues. The other three suspects served as lookouts, Mr. Kelly said.

"There was a driver who was a cooperator, and there was the individual who placed the bombs in the vehicle, and then there were three lookouts," Mr. Kelly said. "As everyone was going back to the car, that is when the signal was given to the emergency service officers to move in."

An 18-wheel vehicle - known as a "low-boy" - blocked the suspects’ black sport utility vehicle at 237th Street and Riverdale Avenue. The F.B.I. informer also served as the driver of the suspects’ S.U.V., Mr. Kelly said.

Another armored vehicle arrived and officers from the department’s Emergency Service Unit smashed the blackened windows of the S.U.V., removed the men from the vehicle, and handcuffed them on the ground. None offered resistance.

Other police officers, along with members of the Joint Terrorist Task Force, the F.B.I., and the state police, were also on hand, and "moved in and took those individuals away," Mr. Kelly said. Three of the four men were escorted by federal agents from Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan around 1 a.m. Thursday. They were handcuffed and did not respond to reporters’ questions as they were loaded into the back of vehicles to be taken to the nearby Metropolitan Correctional Center. There, they emerged one by one.

Mr. Cromitie, who was wearing a dark blue shirt and jeans, gazed at the assembled reporters and photographers but again did not respond to questions. David and Onta Williams also did not answer questions as they quickly walked by, staring at the ground. A federal law enforcement official described the plot as "aspirational" - meaning that the suspects wanted to do something but had no weapons or explosives - and described the operation as a sting with a cooperator within the group.

"It was fully controlled at all times," a law enforcement official said.

Mr. Kelly told Jewish leaders Wednesday evening that the attackers planned simultaneous attacks. After the men left the bombs in cars in front of the two synagogues, they planned to drive back to Newburgh and retrieve cellphone-detonating devices and then proceed with the attack on the air base - simultaneously shooting down aircraft while remotely setting off the devices in the cars.

Stewart International Airport is used by the New York Air National Guard and United States Air Force, according to the complaint, and it stores aircraft used to transport military supplies and personnel to the military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The shadowy figure of the F.B.I. informant is, in many ways, a driving force of the plot laid out by prosecutors. The informant, who has been cooperating with the F.B.I. for the past six years, first met with Mr. Cromitie at the Masjid al-Ikhlas, a mosque in Newburgh, in June 2008. At that time, Mr. Cromitie told the informant that he was interested in returning to Afghanistan. Mr. Cromitie spoke about how, if he were to die a martyr, he would go to paradise, the complaint said.

A month later, the informant lied to Mr. Cromitie, telling him that he was a member of Jaish al-Mohammed, a terrorist organization based in Pakistan. Mr. Cromitie said he would be interested in joining up "to do jihad." The informant, who audio and video taped many of his meetings with the defendants, later told them that the surface-to-air missiles and explosives were provided by the terrorist group.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and elected officials joined Mr. Kelly at the news conference on Thursday morning, which was held as worshipers arrived for morning services.

The mayor praised the Police Department, which worked with the F.B.I. and other agencies on the case, and described the disruption of the terror plot as a frightening but exceptional occurrence. "Most people in New York City want to live together, work together, and I think we’re as safe today as we’ve ever been before," the mayor said.

Political leaders responded to the news of the arrests with statements expressing relief.

State Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Bronx Democrat who represents Riverdale, and is a member of the congregation at the Riverdale Temple, also praised law enforcement authorities for their efforts.

"I think most people will agree that we’re very angry, but very sad, that this kind of plot would take place in our community," he said. "There are people out there motivated by religious hatred, hatred against Jews frankly, but the good news is that the N.Y.P.D. and F.B.I. were on top of this from the very beginning."

Reporting was contributed by Al Baker, Sharon Otterman, David Johnston, Angela Macropoulos, Jennifer Mascia, Colin Moynihan, William K. Rashbaum and Benjamin Weiser.

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