The Making of a Terrorist Plot: How the FBI Shaped the Attempt to Bomb a Bronx Synagogue


Arrests and Convictions

On May 20, 2009, four African-American men from Newburgh, N.Y.—David Cromitie, Onta Williams, David Williams IV, and Laguerre Payen—were arrested outside the Riverdale Jewish Center for planning to fire Stryker missiles at the synagogue and shoot down cargo planes at nearby Stuart Air Force Base. Hundreds of police officers and FBI agents arrived to handcuff the suspects, who were photographed carrying facsimile explosives provided by a sting operation. Jonathan Rosenblatt, the rabbi of the targeted synagogue, called the arrests “America’s finest hour,” while Mayor Bloomberg added, “This latest attempt to attack our freedoms shows that the Homeland Security threats against America are all too real.”

News coverage in the following days and months presented this story: federal agents stop a group of extremist Muslims from carrying out plans to kill Jews in New York City. Yet during the two-month long trial, which took place during the fall of 2010, a different version of events emerged, one that challenged the simplistic narrative offered by the government and mainstream press. It soon became evident that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, desperate for some sort of success in the ongoing and shadowy war on terror, had planted the seeds of a terrorist plot in the minds of four petty criminals. The suspects—drug dealers with dozens of arrests and prison stints under their belts—were hungry, unemployed, and a far cry from competent terrorists. But they became easy targets, transformed into makeshift jihadists by an FBI informant.

With all four defendants convicted in October 2010, this superficial success story appeared complete. A frightening plot had been uncovered, and the FBI, NYPD, and federal court system had each played their respective roles in arresting, trying, and convicting four “homegrown” terrorists. But the entire case was a deceptive coup, one which will end with life imprisonment for four low-level drug dealers from upstate New York.

The Key Players: David Cromitie (the Alleged Mastermind), Shahed Hussain (the Informant), Robert Fuller (the Agent)

As it turns out, none of the Newburgh Four were born into the Islamic faith; they converted while serving time in federal prison for drug offenses. Upon their release, they began spending time at the Masjid Al-Ikhlas mosque in Newburgh, N.Y., a gathering place for African-American ex-cons. But the mosque, which prides itself on interfaith dialogue and building relationships with the local Newburgh community, had little to do with the violent radicalization of the defendants. Instead, court evidence indicates that FBI informant Shahed Hussain pushed the suspects towards terrorism. Well-known to members of the mosque, Hussain was notorious for talking to congregants in the parking lot about jihad, offering free lunches, and promising jobs.

Hussain had worked at the FBI for six years when he first met Cromitie in 2008. After sneaking into the United States with a fake passport in 1994, Hussain was later granted asylum for what he claims were politically motivated criminal charges (including murder) against him in Pakistan. During his first eight years in the U.S., he worked as a gas station owner until he was convicted of a complex fraud scheme involving fake driver’s licenses. As part of a plea bargain related to his conviction, Hussain became an informant for the FBI. He has since worked with the Bureau on more than twenty cases, including a 2004 terrorist sting operation in which he helped convict two men in Albany, N.Y. for plotting to kill a Pakistani diplomat with a missile.

Hussain’s behavior during his time as an informant is alarming, at times inexplicable. He obtained a fake passport and traveled to Pakistan to attend terrorist training camp, something he claims to have done in the service of the FBI. He says that Benazir Bhutto, whom he calls a long-time friend, gave him $40,000 to buy a car for his son’s eighteenth birthday in 2002. (At the time, his son was only thirteen-years-old and much too young to either own or drive a car.) Other Pakistani sources have transferred even larger sums of money to Hussain. Over the last decade, he has received $450,000 in wire transfers from Pakistan.

In 2007, Hussain began working under Robert Fuller, an agent for the FBI with an equally unusual and checkered history. One of Fuller’s previous informants, Mohamed Alhadrami, attempted to immolate himself outside the White House. In a suicide note that he sent to both Fuller and the Washington Post, Alhadrami said that the FBI had “destroyed his life” and asked, “Why don’t you care about my life and my family’s life?” He claimed that the Bureau never paid him the money which they had promised him and that they had unjustly revealed his identity to the public. Furthermore, while his wife was dying of cancer in Yemen, the FBI withheld his passport, preventing him from visiting his spouse before her death. Fuller’s problems as an agent extend beyond his troubled handling of informants. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, Fuller behaved reticently while investigating one of the 9/11 hijackers, failing to look deeply enough into the case during the months leading up to the attacks.

Hussain had worked with Fuller for about a year when he first met Cromitie on June 13, 2008 in the parking lot of the Al-Ihklas mosque. Hussain presented himself to Cromitie as a wealthy Pakistani businessman: he wore designer clothes and drove his Hummer or BMW to the mosque.  Cromitie was a small-scale drug dealer who had already been arrested twenty-seven times for various drug offenses and had spent much of his adult life in the New York Correctional System. In 2008, he was forty-two and worked the night shift at Wal-Mart. At one point during the investigation, he became so destitute that he called Hussain to request money for groceries.

During the first meeting, which prosecutors cited frequently throughout the trial, Cromitie supposedly waved his finger in the air, saying, “I want to do something to America.” This bit of incendiary speech, which Hussain related to Fuller, was enough to trigger an official inquiry. Three months later, in September 2008, Fuller got permission from the FBI to launch an international terrorism investigation. Hussain then began recording his conversations with Cromitie. On October 12, 2008, in the first recording between the two, Cromitie mentioned an incident where a Jewish man had harassed him about how he allegedly wanted to kill Jews. Hussain, sensing the opportunity, shifted the discussion towards jihad, praising recent terrorist bombings in Pakistan.

Convincing Cromitie: Hussain’s $250,000 Offer

Over the course of the next seven months, Hussain continued talks with Cromitie and recorded their conversations. He amassed hundreds of hours of tapes, many of which were played during the trial. In these conversations, Cromitie at times became angry and violent. He bragged to Hussain about some of his past attacks—claiming, among other things, to have “shot gasoline bombs”—although there is no evidence that any such attacks ever occurred. Despite his boastful attitude, Cromitie was hesitant to agree with any solid plans, insisting he did not want “to blow my goddamn self up” and that “the plane thing is out of the question.”

In early 2009, Cromitie disappeared from Hussain’s radar, ignoring his calls. When Hussain got back in touch with Cromitie that April, he adopted more aggressive tactics in convincing Cromitie to go through with the bombings. Cromitie remained hesitant, telling Hussain on April 7, “I need a job to make good money, but it doesn’t have to be this.” Hussain consequently turned up the pressure, making Cromitie a number of offers he could not refuse. At several points, Hussain offered Cromitie a new BMW, $70,000 to start a barbershop, and $250,000 in cash. Hussain also tried to guilt-trip Cromitie, telling him that he could “not face my brothers knowing they had spent all this money” to construct and ship weapons to the United States. He even told Cromitie that “his life was on the line.”

At this point, Cromitie proved unprepared to carry out any sort of terrorist action. Without a car or computer, he was unable to visit any of the targeted locations. Instead, Hussain printed out maps of the two attack sites and drove Cromitie to both in an FBI-owned car. Hussain then formulated the attack plan.

Cromitie’s ineptitude as a terrorist extended far beyond his lack of resources and planning ability. His ideas proved impractical and unintelligent. During one recorded conversation, he suggested to Hussain that they “do a dam.” He planned to remove a single brick and let the entire dam collapse, a strategy that defies the laws of physics and ignores the fact that modern dams are made of solid concrete, not bricks. An even more pointed demonstration of Cromitie’s incompetence came on the day of the attempted attacks. In another recorded phone conversation just moments before the missiles were to be fired, Hussain and Cromitie discussed the detonators. Hussain asked, “So, did you turn it on?” A perplexed Cromitie responded, “Turn what on?” Hussain reminded him, “The switch, did you turn it on?” Cromitie replied, “No, was I supposed to?”

The FBI surely recognized Cromitie’s incompetence. According to a June 21, 2010 article in the New York Post, an internal FBI memo said not to worry if Cromitie appeared at Stuart Air Force Base. The FBI and NYPD sent hundreds of officers to the Riverdale Jewish Center to arrest Cromitie, Williams, Williams IV, and Payenne despite the fact that, according to FBI documents, the authorities were fully aware that none of the men posed a significant threat.

All four men went to the synagogue with what they believed were missiles capable of great damage. But a lingering question remains: could they have ever obtained dangerous weapons on their own? Could they themselves have planned a complex attack? Would they have been motivated enough to do any of these things without the encouragement and monetary offers of Shahed Hussain? Based on evidence from the trial, the answer to all of these questions is no. The FBI did not find terrorists or members of al Qaeda behind the proposed attacks. Instead, they found desperate ex-cons willing to accept lucrative monetary rewards to commit violent acts. They found foot soldiers, not masterminds.

This strategy to combat terrorism echoes the greater flaws of the War on Terror as well as the War on Drugs. Both instances target low-level players but fail to dismantle large-scale organizations and address root causes. Just as the War on Drugs has had little to no success in stemming drug use or the drug trade in the past twenty years, the War on Terror will encounter a similar fate if it continues in this manner.

Satellite photo of Stewart Air National Guard Base, where the accused were allegedly planning to shoot down a military aircraft.

A Troubling Pattern of FBI Behavior

According to James Wedick, a retired FBI agent who spent thirty-four years with the Bureau, the FBI’s behavior in this case symbolizes its organization-wide misdirection. Following September 11, Wedick believes the FBI has “gone over the line” in their anti-terror tactics. The methodology chosen for the Bronx Synagogue Bombing case follows a pattern of post-9/11 domestic terrorist investigations. First, the FBI pays, or promises to pay, an informant a large sum of money to go undercover and seek out dangerous extremists. Hussain was paid $97,000 over three years for his activities. The informant in a 2006 terrorism case against Hamid and Umer Hayat in Stockton, California received about $240,000. In the Miami Liberty Seven case the FBI paid its informant $130,000.

Subsequently, the informant—highly incentivized to produce a case by the large sums of money involved—contacts the suspect. This first contact is usually not recorded, allowing the informant to distort the initial exchange. Wedick argues that “if the first conversations are not on tape, there is a good chance the informant manipulated the whole situation.” In this case, we cannot know what happened in the initial conversation between Cromitie and Hussain since the latter did not record it. This lack of hard evidence forced the court to believe Hussain when he recalled Cromitie saying that he “wanted to do something to America.” More surprisingly, Hussain failed to record any conversations with Cromitie over the first three months.

In what may be the most questionable part of the whole process, the informant then offers the suspect large sums of money to engage in terrorist activities. Hussain offered Cromitie $250,000 to mastermind the attacks and $25,000 for any assistants. Cromitie found this offer credible; Hussain projected affluence by driving expensive sports cars and giving Cromitie smaller sums of money to buy food and clothes. Wedick believes this mode of undercover operation will attract not terrorists but rather desperate individuals who need money. He argues that the individuals charged tend to be “pathetic people” who “have trouble getting out of bed in the morning…In the ‘60s or ‘70s we had hospitals for them. Now we just use the criminal justice system to take them off the streets.”

Laguerre Payen, one of Cromitie’s co-conspirators, has a documented history of mental illness. In September, Payen became unresponsive in his jail cell and had to be brought into court in a wheel chair. He complained of visual hallucinations, which included the Virgin Mary, lights, dead people, bugs, and people asking him to play chess. In June 2010 Payen asked his psychiatrist, “This is the Matrix, isn’t it?” According to his lawyer, Payen has been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.

Wedick argues that FBI culture has shifted entirely following 9/11, making once-unacceptable practices the norm. He says that “back then [in the ‘70s] informants were only allowed to ‘listen’ and ask questions, not suggest or incite others to commit crimes… particularly while collecting money and receiving other incentives.” But Hussain promised Cromitie that, “my brothers will make you the happiest man on earth.” He offered Cromitie a taste of joy.

Defense lawyers for the Newburgh Four argued that the FBI entrapped the defendants, planting the ideas of terrorist actions into the hands of men who otherwise would not have considered committing such crimes. The entrapment defense has become routine in post-9/11 terror plot trials; it has been used in twenty-five percent of U.S. terror cases since 2001. But this tactic has yet to succeed. The definition of entrapment, which hinges upon the suspect’s disposition before meeting the informant, highlights the critical importance of recording the first conversations between suspect and informant. This is something the FBI, as Wedick points out, has continually failed to do. In the case of a recent terror plot to bomb a Portland tree-lighting ceremony, for instance, investigators again neglected to record initial conversations with the suspect, and defense lawyers plan to cite the entrapment defense yet again.

As lawyers continue to accuse the FBI of entrapping lower-class Muslim men, the Bureau’s obsession with Islamic terrorism has become increasingly evident. Interestingly enough, some of the most notable domestic terrorist attacks following 9/11 have involved crazed, lone, and non-Islamic gunmen, including the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and the recent Tucson rampage. This is not to say that Islamic extremism should not be confronted, as taught by the deadly 2009 Fort Hood shooting and the 2010 Times Square bomb plot. But the terror attacks following 9/11 have been perpetrated largely by lone actors, many of whom had bouts with mental illness. How, then, can the U.S. protect itself against this kind of terrorism? How do we stop an armed, individual actor, whether motivated by religious extremism or not, from wreaking havoc and taking lives? As the unfolding of the Bronx Bombing plot suggests, the government’s strategy seems to focus on the production of terrorist plots rather than their prevention.

John Mueller, a professor of political science at The Ohio State University, argues that the FBI has been running down a dead-end street in its hunt for organized Islamic terrorism. In an article entitled, “Is There Still a Terrorist Threat?: The Myth of the Omnipresent Enemy,” Mueller suggests that one explanation for the lack of real domestic terrorist attacks since 9/11 is that “almost no terrorists exist in the United States.” Robert Mueller (no relation), FBI director since September 4, 2001, does not share this opinion. He argued in 2003 that “the greatest [security] threat is from al Qaeda cells in the U.S. that we have not yet identified.” This philosophy has clearly guided FBI policy over the last decade. The number of agents working on domestic counterterrorism doubled between 2001 and 2009, when 2,400 agents were re-assigned from other duties to fight terrorism. Counterterrorism activities now account for more than twenty-five percent of the work performed by field agents.

According to a 2008 article from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the effect of the FBI’s post-9/11 restructuring has been two-fold: (1) an insufficient amount of resources to combat financial, civil rights, and corruption crimes, and (2) economic pressure to produce terrorism cases. As incidents of complex financial fraud increase, agents have been forced to juggle dozens of cases and focus on those with the largest perceived loss. At the same time, those agents reassigned to terrorist cases need results in order to justify their jobs, and results have been hard to come by. A 2005 FBI memo noted that no true al Qaeda sleeper cell had successfully been identified. Coupled with Robert Mueller’s single-minded focus on the threat of domestic terrorism, this failure has created a sense of urgency for FBI agents to uncover terrorist plots. This internal pressure has fostered a culture in which agent Robert Fuller could pay his informant Shahed Hussain $97,000 to lurk around parking lots and offer David Cromitie $250,000 to commit terrorist acts.

It is hard to see how any of this actually makes America safer. Even worse, it is frightening to think of the sheer amount of government resources that have been funneled into dubious counterterrorism investigations. In the Bronx Synagogue Bombing case, FBI agents, federal public defense lawyers, and federal prosecutors all received large sums in order to investigate and try the Newburgh Four. Instead of financing white-collar crime investigation, four petty criminals have been sentenced to life in prison, and the public has been fed the illusion that it avoided a potential terrorist plot.

JOEL GOMBINER, CC ‘11, is an Earth and Environmental Sciences major. He can be reached
at [email protected]