ON the steps of New York city hall on Friday, Michael Bloomberg, the mayor, praised the police officers and federal agents who helped disrupt an apparent terrorist plot to blow up a synagogue and shoot down military aircraft.
The mayor was flanked by more than 100 homeland security and counter-terrorist specialists, all of whom had a hand in an elaborate sting that netted four alleged Muslim extremists. Their plan, according to FBI agents, was to detonate a “fireball that would make the country gasp”.
The operation was acclaimed by New York officials for its success in averting what David Paterson, the state governor, described as “a heinous crime”.
Yet not every New Yorker was impressed by the latest in a long line of purported anti-terrorist triumphs that have supposedly averted tragedy in New York, Chicago, Toronto and several other North American cities since September 11, 2001.
“This whole operation was a foolish waste of time and money,” claimed Terence Kindlon, a defence lawyer who represented the last terror suspect to be tried in New York state. “It is almost as if the FBI cooked up the plot and found four idiots to install as defendants.”
Kindlon’s complaints were echoed by other legal experts who have repeatedly questioned the FBI’s reliance on undercover informants – known as confidential witnesses (CWs) – who lure gullible radicals into far-fetched plots that are then foiled by the agents monitoring them.
The last such plot purportedly involved an alleged attempt to blow up a fuel pipeline at John F Kennedy airport in New York in 2007; the defendants are awaiting trial in a case that depends heavily on evidence from an undercover CW.
“One question [about the synagogue case] that has to be answered is: did the informant go in and enlist people who were otherwise not considering trouble ?” said Kevin Luibrand, who represented a Muslim businessman caught up in another FBI sting three years ago. “Did the government induce someone to commit a crime?”
The other question that US security experts were debating was how much had been achieved by assigning more than 100 agents to a year-long investigation of three petty criminals and a mentally ill Haitian immigrant, none of whom had any connection with any known terrorist group. “They were all unsophisticated dimwits,” said Kindlon.
Prosecutors alleged that James Cromitie, a 44-year-old ex-convict who converted to Islam in prison, was the ringleader of a plot to bomb synagogues because, in his tape-recorded words, “I hate those f****** Jewish bastards”.
Cromitie, from Newburgh, 60 miles north of Manhattan, was said to have recruited three other Muslim converts – David Williams, 28, and Onta Williams (no relation), 32, both former Baptist American ex-convicts; and Laguerre Payen, 27, a Haitian former Catholic and paranoid schizophrenic.
This unlikely crew was said to have planned to use remotely detonated C4 explosives to bomb synagogues in the New York suburb of Riverdale; they then intended to drive north to a National Guard base near Newburgh to shoot down military aircraft with a Stinger missile supplied by a man they believed was working with Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan-based terrorist group.
That man is now understood to have been Shahed Hussain, a former New York state motel owner who became an FBI informant in 2002 to avoid deportation to Pakistan after being arrested on fraud charges. Hussain appears to have met Cromitie at a Newburgh mosque where the plot to bomb Jewish targets was hatched.
With Hussain’s help, the FBI was able to monitor every move made by Cromitie and the others. Hussain also provided the group with bogus C4 explosive and a fake Stinger missile and launcher supplied by the FBI. When the conspirators planted their dud bombs outside two Jewish targets on Wednesday night, the FBI was watching. The area was smothered with heavily armed Swat teams, the would-be bombers’ exit was blocked and agents hauled them away in handcuffs.
“Did they really need all those men in ninja suits with M16 rifles to arrest four idiots?” wondered Kindlon, a former marine sergeant whose main concern is that real terrorists may be plotting undisturbed while domestic US agencies focus on fantasists. “Somewhere, someone in Al-Qaeda must be laughing.”
Concern about the FBI’s tactics heightened after Salahuddin Mustafa Muhammad, imam at the Masjid al-Ikhlas mosque in Newburgh, revealed that when Hussain first came to the mosque and started talking about jihad (holy war) – apparently to identify radical elements for his FBI handlers – several members immediately concluded that he must be a government agent.
The FBI is known to have infiltrated mosques, and many anti-terrorist experts believe a mosque is the last place a serious Islamic terrorist would plot an attack. “Anyone with any smarts knew to stay away from [Hussain],” said Muhammad. Yet nobody will accuse Cromitie and his cohorts of being smart.