Thursday, May 21, 2009

New York Times:
May 21, 2009, 7:10 am

Police Detail Disruption of Terror Plot
By Sewell Chan AND Nate Schweber

Updated, 11:02 a.m. Wanda Cromitie, whose brother, James, has been described by the authorities as the ringleader of the terror plot, said in a phone interview, “I was very surprised. I heard about it on T.V. this morning. This is really shocking. This is crazy. I’m really devastated.”

Asked whether her brother had ever expressed any political views like the ones ascribed to him by the authorities, Ms. Cromitie replied: “Never. Right now to me he’s like the dumbest person I ever came in contact with in my life.”

Ms. Cromitie said she was not close with her brother and last talked to him about two years ago. She believed he had a job at a K-Mart or Wal-Mart.

Ms. Cromitie said she did not believe her brother was a Muslim, but noted that many inmates convert to Islam in prison. “They do a little time in jail and they don’t eat pork no more,” she said.

Updated, 10:57 a.m. The four men who were 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 acted alone and did not appear to be acting in concert with any terrorist organization, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said on Thursday morning.
Raymond W. KellyChip East/Reuters Raymond W. Kelly, the New York City police commissioner, spoke about the case on Thursday morning in front of the Riverdale Jewish Center.

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

Mr. Cromitie, 53, had lived in Brooklyn and had a record of “as many as 27 arrests” for minor crimes “both upstate and in New York City,” Mr. Kelly said. He, David Williams and Onta Williams are native-born United States citizens, while Mr. Payen is a native of Haiti. “We believe they knew each other from prison contacts, for the most part,” Mr. Kelly said.

Mr. Cromitie was the oldest member of the group and its leader, while the others were “significantly younger,” in their late 20s or early 30s, Mr. Kelly said.

“They stated that they wanted to commit jihad,” he said. “More information about their motives I’m sure will be developed as the case progresses, but right now, they stated they wanted to make 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.”

The men, all of whom live in Newburgh, about 60 miles north of New York City, were arrested around 9 p.m. 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 arrests came after 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.

At no point, the authorities emphasized, did the men actually acquire weapons of mass destruction, though they stand accused of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction within the United States and conspiracy to acquire and use antiaircraft missiles.

Mr. Kelly offered fresh details on Thursday morning of the moments leading up to the arrests on Wednesday night.

The arrests, he said, occurred after one of the suspects placed what he believed were homemade bombs, or improvised explosive devices, in 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. “When everyone returned to their car — 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 New York Police Department 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.

Each of the two homemade bombs was equipped with “about 37 pounds” of inert C-4 plastic explosives, but the devices had been “totally disabled by the F.B.I.” and “there was no danger to anyone,” Mr. Kelly said.

He said of the case: “It speaks to our concern about homegrown terrorism.”

Mr. Kelly joined Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and elected officials for a news conference on Thursday morning outside the Riverdale Jewish Center to greet morning worshipers.

The mayor praised the Police Department, which worked on 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.

State Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Bronx Democrat who represents Riverdale, noted that he is a member of the congregation at the Riverdale Temple. “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.”

City Councilman G. Oliver Koppell, who also represents the neighborhood, said: “It’s a very frightening, disturbing situation. Fortunately, good, enormously good police work averted a terrible tragedy.”

He added: “Unfortunately, people with twisted minds often copy things. I think our community needs special protection now — I’m sure we’ll get it.”

The overwhelming sentiment among members of the Jewish population in Riverdale interviewed on Thursday morning was astonishment.

“I was shocked,” Eric Suss, 18, said outside the Riverdale Jewish Center. “As a Jew, I felt targeted.”

Harry Feder, 59, former president of the Orthodox synagogue, said: “I think it’s just a shock. Of all the places in the metropolitan area, of all the communities, this is surprising. This has put fear into whatever community you’re in.”

Another synagogue member, Elliot Falk, 56, said: “I felt a heightened sense of danger. There’s always been anti-Semitism in this world, it’s a shame to see it taken to an extreme here.”

David Winter, executive director of the synagogue, said he was “both shocked and relieved.” He said, “Instead of a terrible story, it’s a story of success.” The Riverdale Jewish Center has close ties to Israel.

More than 700 families are members of the synagogue, and people normally pray there from 5:30 in the morning until 10 in the evening, Mr. Winter said.

The Riverdale Jewish Community Council, whose leaders were briefed on the terror plot by police officials on Wednesday evening, noted that Jewish synagogues in the neighborhood had been the subject of threats. Ari Hoffnung, the council’s chairman, said in a statement:

Unfortunately, this is not the first attempt to terrorize a house of worship in Riverdale. This incident demonstrates the need for the Department of Homeland Security and other relevant agencies to expand the funding of security grants for religious institutions and houses of worship. High-density, high-vulnerability areas like New York ought to receive all resources necessary to protect themselves.

Also on Thursday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil liberties organization for Muslim Americans, urged the public not to link the case with mainstream Islam.

“We applaud the F.B.I., the New York Police Department and the other law enforcement agencies that took part in the investigation for their efforts in helping to prevent any harm to either Jewish institutions or to our nation’s military,” the organization’s executive director, Nihad Awad, said. “We repeat the American Muslim community’s repudiation of bias-motivated crimes and of anyone who would falsely claim religious justification for violent actions. Members of the American Muslim community should remain vigilant in reporting any activities that could harm the safety and security of our nation or its citizens.”

Sam Roberts contributed reporting.


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