NY terror plot foiled; 4 men arrested
NEW YORK (WABC) -- The suspects were caught in the act, allegedly placed what they thought were car bombs wired to cell phones outside the Riverdale Jewish center and the nearby Riverdale temple.
Members of the JTTF swooped down the four suspects about 9:00 Wednesday night, blocking their escape with an 18-wheeler.
New details about the terror plot allegedly concocted by 55-year-old James Cromitie, a career criminal accused of recruiting the other 3. All three are fellow Newburgh residents. David Williams, 58, and Onta Williams, 32, appeared with Cromitie in court early Thursday afternoon.
A defense lawyer for the fourth suspect says he is "intellectually challenged" and has trouble understanding complex concepts.
Attorney Marilyn Reader told a court that Laguerre Payen has "a very low borderline" IQ and is on medication for schizophrenia.
When a judge asked the 27-year-old Payen whether he understood the proceedings, he said, "Sort of."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Snyder says Payen is an alert and "enthusiastic" participant in secretly videotaped discussions of the plot.
Payen and his co-defendants are being held without bail.
Acting U.S. Attorney Lev L. Dassin said the defendants planned to detonate a car with plastic explosives to destroy the synagogues.
They also planned to shoot Stinger surface-to-air guided missiles at planes at the Air National Guard base in Newburgh, about 70 miles north of New York City.
The arrests came after a nearly yearlong undercover operation that began in Newburgh. The defendants bought a digital camera at Wal-Mart to take pictures of targets, they spoke in code, and they expressed their hatred of Jews on several occasions, according to a criminal complaint.
The key to this case was Cromitie's chance encounter with a government informant at a Newburgh mosque last June who then flagged an FBI agent.
The confidential informant who broke the case told Cromitie that he was involved with Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistani terrorist group.
It is one of several militant groups suspected of having links to Pakistani intelligence. Jaish set up training camps in Afghanistan under the Taliban and several senior operatives were close to Osama bin Laden.
Cromitie expressed interest in joining the group to "do jihad," according to a criminal complaint.
Beginning that October, under FBI supervision, the witness began meeting with the suspects. The federal complaint says Cromitie discussed possible New York targets, expressing disappointment, "the best target (the World Trade Center) was hit already." Later, he reportedly stated about Jews: "I hate those mother....Those....Jewish ....I would like to destroy a synagogue."
In June 2008, the informant met Cromitie in Newburgh and Cromitie complained that his parents had lived in Afghanistan and he was upset about the war there and that many Muslim people were being killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan by U.S. military forces, officials said.
Cromitie also expressed an interest in doing "something to America," they said in the complaint.
In October 2008, the informant began meeting with the defendants at a Newburgh house equipped with concealed video and audio equipment, the complaint said.
Beginning in April 2009, the four men selected the synagogues they intended to hit, it said. They also conducted surveillance of military planes at the Air National Guard Base, it said.
At a news conference outside the Riverdale Jewish Center in the Bronx, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly quoted one of the men as saying, "If Jews were killed in this attack ... that would be all right."
"They stated that they wanted to commit jihad," Kelly said. "They were disturbed about what happened in Afghanistan and Pakistan, that Muslims were being killed."
Prosecutors say the four suspects even took surveillance photos of synagogues and visited Stewart Air force base, looking for a location where they could shoot at military planes using surface-to-air missiles. The informant provided the devices recovered Wednesday night as well as a non-functional missile system.
John Morgan knows all four men. He says they had more immediate concerns on the mean streets of Newburgh than waging holy way against America.
Although the men never served time together, prosecutors say they are all jailhouse converts to Islam. They had long rap sheets for charges including drug possession and assault.
According to state Department of Correctional Services records, Payen was released on parole in August 2005 after serving just more than a year in prison for attempted assault in Rockland County.
Onta Williams served just more than a year in state prison for attempted criminal possession of a controlled substance in Orange County. He was released on parole in August 2003.
Cromitie, 44, has been in prison at least three times under three different names, prison records show.
He served two years on a drug sale conviction and was released on parole in 1991. Then, under the name of David Anderson, he spent 2 1/2 years in prison for selling drugs in New York City before being paroled in 1996. Under the name James Crometie, he was convicted of selling drugs in a school zone in 2000 and spent almost four years in prison before being released on parole in 2004.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Kelly met privately with congregants inside the Riverdale Jewish Center Thursday.
"The shock and being floored was followed by relief," David Winter, executive director of the Riverdale Jewish Center, said afterward.
Bloomberg warned against stereotypes, emphasizing that the temple is open to people of all faiths, including a Muslim girl who sometimes prays there.
Kelly said the temple may have been chosen because of "convenience" - it is near a highway. He said the suspects had scouted the location twice before.
Kelly said the uniformed officers who flooded the neighborhood were there to improve residents' "comfort level," even though "No one was at risk. This was a very tightly controlled operation."
"It's a little scary being so close to home, but you have to just move on sometimes," said Maria Patuhas, 18, a senior at the Riverdale Kingsbridge Academy, across the street from the temple.
Nancy Harris Rouemy was alarmed when she learned the news from a neighbor, thinking: "Oh my God, that's my kid's school."
"I definitely paused" before taking her 4-year-old to the Riverdale Jewish Center. "However, the assurance is that the perps were caught and my son wouldn't be in danger," she said.
"It is so upsetting," agreed her husband, Isaac. "If it was an actual bomb, it would be a disaster. It's not just a synagogue. It's a school and there are senior citizens who come here too."
Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, issued a statement praising law enforcers "for their efforts in helping to prevent any harm to either Jewish institutions or to our nation's military."
"We repeat the American Muslim community's repudiation of bias-motivated crimes and of anyone who would falsely claim religious justification for violent actions," the statement said.
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