2009 Bronx terrorism plot
|The Newburgh Four Bombers|
Location of the two targets.
|Date||Attempted on May 20, 2009|
|Attempted bombing; attempt to shoot down military aircraft|
|Weapons||fake C-4 plastic explosives; fake Stinger missiles|
On May 20, 2009, US law enforcement arrested four men in connection with a plot to shoot down military airplanes flying out of an Air National Guard base in Newburgh, New York, and blow up two synagogues in the Riverdale community of the Bronx. The group, led by James Cromitie, was tried and all four were convicted. It was later brought to light that the four men were actually encouraged into participating in the plot by the FBI. The men argue that this was a case of entrapment.
The FBI's use of two informants, and offers of money and food incentives to the four men in the case has led to accusations that the FBI engaged in entrapment. On August 23, 2013 by a 2 to 1 vote an appeal to overturn the convictions was denied by a Manhattan appeals court. Judge Jon O. Newman cited Cromitie's statements as proof of intent. Dissenting judge the Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs said there was scarce evidence of pre intent and that Cromitie was "badgered" into joining the plot. All three judges unanimously rejected the entrapment claims by the three other defendants and rejected all four defendants’ arguments that their convictions should be overturned on grounds of government misconduct.
The attempted attack is cited as one of a series of plots and failed attacks by Muslims on military installations in the United States, including the 2005 Los Angeles bomb plot, the 2007 Fort Dix attack plot, the 2009 Little Rock recruiting office shooting, and the September 11 attacks. As with the 2005 plot to attack military bases in California, some or all of the other suspects converted to Islam in prison.
The terrorist suspects were four Muslim men; three are African-American U.S. citizens, and one is a Haitian immigrant. Cromitie was first recruited by Shahed Hussain, an Albany hotel owner and FBI informant at the Masjid al-Ikhlas mosque in Newburgh, New York, which he attended on only a few occasions. The FBI informant posed as a wealthy business man and enticed Cromitie with an offer of $250,000.
Cromitie and his three accomplices, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen, had no serious offences on their records, but were described as "extremely violent men" by prosecutors. The defense argued that these men would never have contrived this plot without the leadership of paid informants, which many have considered a wasteful use of government resources, i.e., to create terrorism plots where there wouldn't have been any to begin with. None of the men had the money, knowledge or skills to obtain materials or assemble a bomb.
Cromitie (also known as Abdul Rahman), the reported leader, claimed he was born a Muslim and that his parents live in Afghanistan. He told the FBI informant that he was angry about the US military killing Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He had lived in Brooklyn and had a record of 27 arrests for minor crimes both in upstate New York State and New York City.
In April 2009, the FBI informant coaxed Cromitie and his three alleged accomplices into accepting their targets. They were to bomb the Riverdale Temple and nearby Riverdale Jewish Center in the Bronx. They were also to fire Stinger surface-to-air guided missiles at military planes at a nearby air base, although it was not clear if they were to target any manned aircraft.
In late August 2010, Shahed Hussain testified that Cromitie "hated Jews and Jewish people and he hated the American people, American soldiers. He was full of hate on those subjects. He said he would kill the president (then George W. Bush) 700 times because he's the Antichrist."
Shahed Hussain, a Pakistani immigrant, agreed to serve as an FBI informant after being arrested in 2002 over a scam involving driver's licenses. He previously served as an informant in an unrelated terrorism investigation in Albany, which resulted in the convictions of Yassin M. Aref and Mohammed Mosharref Hossain. In the Bronx case he was reported to have used audio and video taped many of his meetings with the attackers.
In 2008 Hussain showed up at the Masjid al-Ikhlas mosque under the name "Maqsood", talking of jihad and violence. Members of the congregation interviewed after the plot was exposed said that "most" members of the congregation had believed Hussain to be an informant. No one reported his talk about Jihad to the authorities. Cromitie expressed interest to the informant of returning to Afghanistan, and hopefully becoming a martyr.
In April 2009, Cromitie and his three accomplices chose their targets. They planned to both bomb the Riverdale Temple and nearby Riverdale Jewish Center in the Bronx, and, using Stinger surface-to-air guided missiles, shoot down military planes flying out of a nearby air base.
The accused attackers bought cellphones, as well as cameras, from Wal-Mart, to scout out the synagogues. They attempted to buy guns from a dealer in Newburgh; however, the dealer had sold out. They then drove downstate and bought a $700 pistol from a Bloods gang leader in Brooklyn.
On May 6, 2009, the men traveled to Stamford, Connecticut, to pick up what they believed to be a surface-to-air guided-missile system and three improvised explosive devices, all of which were incapable of actually being used. On the way there, one of the men believed they were being followed by federal agents. They returned to Newburgh until they were satisfied that they were safe, and then turned around and headed back to Stamford.
Attempted attack and arrest
The men placed fake bombs wired to cell phones in three separate cars outside the Riverdale Temple and nearby Riverdale Jewish Center, both in the Riverdale community of Bronx. New York City Police Department Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said one of the suspects placed explosives, while the other three suspects served as lookouts.
The men were returning to their vehicle and heading to attack aircraft at the Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, New York, with the fake Stinger missiles when law enforcement stopped them. The air base shares facilities with the civilian Stewart International Airport.
As the men were returning to the vehicle, the signal was given for the arrest. An 18-wheel New York City Police Department vehicle blocked the end of the street. The FBI informer also served as the driver of the suspects' vehicle. 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.
Both the car bombs and the missiles were actually fakes given to the plotters with the help of an informant for the FBI. Each of the two homemade bombs was equipped with about 37 pounds of inert material designed to look like C-4 plastic explosive, and "there was no danger to anyone," Kelly said.
Trial and sentencing
Cromitie, Onta Williams, David Williams, and Payen and were charged with conspiracy and weapons offenses at their first court appearance on May 21, 2009 and were ordered to be held without bail. The charges they faced – conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction in the United States and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles – carried a maximum sentence of life in prison.
All four men pleaded not guilty. In March 2010, defense lawyers filed a motion to dismiss the case on grounds of entrapment. Relying on materials provided by the government (including recordings and FBI agents' affidavits), the defense argued that the plot was proposed and closely directed by the FBI's informant, who "suggested the targets, paid for the defendants' groceries, bought a gun, provided the fake bombs and missile, assembled the explosive devices and acted as chauffeur".
In late August 2010, government informant Shahed Hussain testified, stating that ringleader James Cromitie "hated Jews and Jewish people and he hated the American people, American soldiers. He was full of hate on those subjects. He said he would kill the president 700 times because he's the Antichrist." After a six-week trial, the four were convicted. The lawyers for the four have filed a motion for a new trial claiming that Hussain committed perjury during the trial. David Williams told the Village Voice that the four were not part of plot to hurt people but to swindle Hussain, and the incriminating statements were made to make Hussain believe the four were credible terrorists.
On June 29, 2011, Cromitie, Onta Williams, and David Williams were each sentenced for their part in the attempted attack to 25 years in prison by Manhattan Federal Judge Colleen McMahon, who criticized not only the defendants, but also what she viewed as the government's overzealous handling of the investigation. Referring to Cromitie, she said, "The essence of what occurred here is that a government, understandably zealous to protect its citizens from terrorism, came upon a man both bigoted and suggestible, one who was incapable of committing an act of terrorism on his own. It created acts of terrorism out of his fantasies of bravado and bigotry, and then made those fantasies come true." She added, "The government did not have to infiltrate and foil some nefarious plot – there was no nefarious plot to foil." She said the defendants were "not political or religious martyrs," but "thugs for hire, pure and simple."
Each of the men apologized before the sentencing. Cromitie said, "I've never been a terrorist and I'll never be a terrorist. I'm very sorry I let myself get caught up in a sting like this" and added that he did not truly believe the anti-Semitic statements heard on the audiotapes at trial. On September 7, 2011, McMahon also sentenced Laguerre Payen to 25 years prison, but repeated her criticism of the government's handling of the investigation.
In 2013, a federal appeals court, by a vote of two to one, upheld convictions that the three defendants were guilty as charged. Judge Newman, in rejecting the misconduct claims, stated that, "As with all sting operations, government creation of the opportunity to commit an offense, even to the point of supplying defendants with materials essential to commit crimes, does not exceed due process limits....[FBI] agents would have been derelict in their duties if they did not test how far Cromitie would go to carry out his desires. When a government agent encounters a Muslim who volunteers that he wants to 'do something to America' or die like a martyr, the agent is entitled to probe the attitudes of that person to learn whether his religious views have impelled him toward the violent brand of radical Islam that poses a dire threat to the United States."
Reactions and aftermath
Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, praised the New York City Police Department. Other local politicians also praised law enforcement and expressed relief. New York Governor David Paterson said the plot illustrated the constant terrorist threat New York faces. On May 30, 2009, New York Governor David Paterson announced he would give the Riverdale Jewish Center and the Riverdale Reform Temple $25,000 each to improve their security. The money will come from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and will primarily involve the installation of alarms and surveillance equipment.
An award-winning 2014 HBO documentary about the case, The Newburgh Sting, showed that the attack plans and materials were all supplied by the FBI informant who coaxed the accused into participating by offering incentives including $250,000, described as a clear case of entrapment. The arrest was described as having been expertly stage-managed in the style of a Hollywood production, needlessly deploying multiple armoured vehicles and over a hundred officers from various departments, including bomb squads although there was no bomb. The FBI, it was claimed, was motivated throughout by a desire to maintain public fear of terrorism and to enhance their reputation for effectiveness.
- 1973 New York bomb plot
- 1993 World Trade Center bombing
- 1993 New York City landmark bomb plot
- 1997 Empire State Building shooting
- 2004 financial buildings plot
- 2005 Los Angeles bomb plot
- 2007 Fort Dix attack plot
- 2009 Little Rock military recruiting office shooting – al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula-inspired attack by Yemen-trained jihadi
- 2011 Manhattan terrorism plot – effort by two Muslim Arab-Americans to attack a synagogue
- Buffalo Six
- Conversion to Islam in prisons
- List of terrorist incidents, 2009
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