By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 2009
NEW YORK, May 21 -- For the past two years, people at the small mosque in Newburgh, N.Y., were suspicious that a government informant was in their midst. The man talked about violent jihad, took people to lunch to push his beliefs and even offered some money. Salahuddin Muhammad, the imam of the mosque, said he warned people away.
But four members were apparently taken in, either by him or someone else, and were arrested about 9 p.m. Wednesday in the Bronx as they planted what they thought were bombs in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Riverdale. The suspects reportedly planned to detonate the devices remotely and then drive to the Air National Guard base in Newburgh, about 60 miles north, to shoot down military aircraft with a missile.
The suspects were unaware that the bombs were fake and the missile faulty, and that the man who provided them was an FBI informant, according to a criminal complaint. Muhammad said he suspected the informant was the man who showed up suddenly at his mosque, Masjid al-Ikhlas, about two years ago. "He came to the mosque and started right away trying to meet up with different people," Muhammad said.
In a news conference at the Riverdale Jewish Center, an Orthodox synagogue that was a target, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly told reporters that the four defendants had met in prison and now live in Newburgh, according to news services.
Kelly said James Cromitie, 53, the plot's leader, had more than two dozen arrests on minor charges in New York. Working with him were David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen -- all U.S.-born except for Payen, who is from Haiti. They were arraigned Thursday in New York courts.
Muhammad said the men were not regulars at the mosque. "I knew one by face, he came to the mosque a couple of times," Muhammad said. "The other guys, I don't know them. I don't think they ever stepped foot in the mosque."
The informant met Cromitie last June at the Newburgh mosque, where he told the informant his parents had lived in Afghanistan and he was upset about the loss of Muslim lives in the war there, according to the complaint. He said that he wanted to visit Afghanistan and that if he were to die a martyr, he would go to paradise.
A month later, the informant told Cromitie he was a member of Jaish-i-Muhammad, a violent group based in Pakistan, and Cromitie responded that he would like to join and "do jihad," the complaint said.
Soon the informant began meeting with Cromitie in a house equipped with concealed audio and video equipment, allowing authorities to watch the alleged plot take shape.
In November Cromitie told the informant that he would "like to destroy a synagogue," and in December he asked the informant to supply him with missiles and explosives.
On May 6, the informant drove with the defendants to a warehouse in Connecticut to buy what he told them were a surface-to-air guided-missile system and three improvised explosive devices, authorities said.
On Wednesday night, one of the suspects placed what he thought were bombs equipped with about 37 pounds each of inert C4 plastic explosives in cars parked outside the Riverdale Jewish Center and the Reform Riverdale Temple, while the other three served as lookouts, Kelly said.
Police soon pounced, smashing the windows of the suspects' SUV and removing the men, Kelly said. None resisted arrest.
Soon after, police asked the Riverdale Jewish Center to host a community meeting, and Kelly read from the criminal complaint, said David Winter, executive director of the center.
"I felt a sense of shock, replaced by a sense of relief that such a horrible act had been averted," Winter said.
The commissioner said the center was targeted simply because it is near a highway, Winter said.
Down the street, Rabbi Judith Lewis of Riverdale Temple said she had known nothing of the operation, though police came to her synagogue Wednesday night.
They told her only that they were trying to apprehend a criminal, she said.
"I heard on the radio as I was driving through that there was a terrorist plot to blow up synagogues," Lewis said.
Nearby, young mothers with strollers expressed equal parts fear and skepticism.
"I did have a question about whether to bring him to music class today, but it seemed safe," Utya Habif-Afres said of her toddler son, Joseph, as she steered him out of the class at the Riverdale Jewish Center.
"You have to be skeptical," Habif-Afres said. "I was also questioning if the police informant didn't provide bombs, would these people have been able to get bombs?"
Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.