First Jihadi Cell of 2009 Busted In the U.S. -- What Does It Mean?

By Walid PharesTerror Expert/FOX News Contributor

A successful counter-terrorism operation led by the FBI and the New York City Police Department ended with the arrest of four New York City men in connection with plots to bomb Jewish synagogues and gun down military planes in upstate areas.


Today's announcement of the foiled terror plot is a stark reminder that we are still under attack -- eight years after the September 11 massacres. And if we are under attack, it means that we are still at war, a real one, not a "man-made disaster."

According to Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly the suspects, identified as James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen allegedly "wanted to commit jihad." A first reading of the material made available by authorities and statements issued by officials help us ask several questions and raise a number of points for debate.

A Victory forLaw Enforcement

The first thing to acknowledge is the success of the operation conducted by the counter-terrorism agencies to stop a "jihadi" attack against the country.

According to the Associated Press, the arrests came following a nearly yearlong undercover operation that began in Newburgh, N.Y., roughly 70 miles north of New York City. The patience, professionalism and sophistication of the law enforcement procedures in engaging the "cell" until it is trapped tell us that the first lines of defense are efficient. Since the 9/11 attacks the New York task forces have been able to arrest suspects in a number of plots including against the Fort Dix New Jersey military base, John F. Kennedy Airport, the Herald Square subway station in Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge.

This leads us to realize that in fact both New York and the nation have been attacked but the shield has worked well, so far. The dismantling of the first cell of 2009 is certainly good news and an additional victory to be credited to the counter-terrorism units but it should be a stark reminder that we -- as a nation -- are still under attack, eight years after the September 11 massacres. And if we are under attack, it only means that we are still at war, a real one, not a "man-made disaster."

New York Targeted?

On Thursday morning, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said (and rightly so) that the alleged plot shows "that the homeland security threats against New York City are sadly all too real and underscores why we must remain vigilant in our efforts to prevent terrorism." However, even though the Big Apple (and New York state) seems to get the largest share of the attention in would-be jihadi terror attempts, we need to remember that the United States as a whole is really targeted and we must keep our guard up all over the country. The radical forces we're confronting worldwide and the ideology that is behind the attacks do not have a private feud with the city of New York -- it's just that their penetration of the largest metropolitan area of America happens to be the greatest.

Jewish Targets?

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told reporters outside the Bronx synagogue that one of the men said, "If Jews were killed in this attack ... that would be all right." Undoubtedly American Jews are a target of prime choice for jihadi terrorists -- either homegrown or infiltrated. With the extreme anti-Semitic material the terrorist propaganda machine is producing, the brainwashing of recruits against anything Jewish is, unfortunately, only the logical result. This is additional evidence that the war of ideas waged by the propagandists on TV and online is inherent to the terror campaigns against civil societies. Where else would the four terror apprentices, who have just been arrested, get the notion that destroying Jewish houses of worship and killing faithful is "all right"? -- Well, where else? The idea comes from the ideologue who is writing or speaking to them via their own media networks. But let's be attentive to the scope of targeting. Even if this plot was sensationally aimed at Jewish targets, military planes were to be shut down and civilians were to be killed indiscriminately. The jihadi guidelines are against all Americans, from all creeds. Al Qaeda, the Taliban and their allies have decreed the "duty to massacre up to four million Americans." So far, we haven't heard of a counter order yet from these folks. The orders are still in effect. Mayor Bloomberg, who stressed that Riverdale synagogue "is open to people of all faiths, including a Muslim girl who sometimes prays there, warned against stereotypes. Bloomberg, Kelly and other city leaders met privately with congregants early Thursday to alleviate security concerns. New York officials should not be too worried about the so-called sectarian backlash. First, Americans are by now well aware of the difference between jihadists and common Muslims. Second, the jihadists have also targeted Muslims in huge numbers around the world. Unfortunately every day so far in this year a jihadi terror action is killing at least one citizen of a Muslim country. Interfaith dialogue is not what worries the perpetrators.

Who Are These Terrorists?

Reports about the background of the alleged terrorists note that the four men are Muslims, three are citizens and one is of Haitian descent. Being Muslim is not the issue here. The problem is that these men are "jihadists" and three are U.S. citizens at the same time. -- That means that we're dealing with what many call a "homegrown terror cell." As I warned in my book "Future Jihad," the type of cells we have been witnessing and will unfortunately see for a while will mutate over time. These terror cells can be comprised by people from various ethnic backgrounds and their knowledge of faith and ideology can also be at different levels. But one there is one thing these would-be terror cells all have in common: They have been touched at some point by an "ideology" which we have been warning about. Note too, that the country of orgin for many involved in terror cells or would-be terror cells is exploding our conventional stereotypes: in recent arrests the suspects have been Haitian, Albanian, Asian, African, European, Middle Eastern, etc.

Motives: Be Careful How You Detect Them

According to a criminal complaint:

"Cromitie began working with an FBI informant in June 2008 when he told the official that his parents has lived in Afghanistan and that he was upset with the ongoing war there, including the deaths of many Muslim in Afghanistan and Pakistan by U.S. military forces."

Compare this statement with many statements made by previously discovered terror cells: they are the same, almost to the word. They are produced by the same "ideological war room." Cromitie didn't mention the killing of more Muslims by the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the like. The same goes for all the previous arrests of would-be terrorists caught in the United States. Isn't it interesting? We need to be careful and not buy the propaganda served by the alleged terrorists but at the same time we need not to be naive. The local NBC station in New York said, for example "the motives behind the alleged plot are not yet known, but authorities said that Cromitie was apparently upset over the war in Afghanistan." After eight years of conflict with the jihadists, dozens of terror cells dismantled and a review of the terrorists' literature there should be no doubt about their "motives." This is a war -- and in each one of its attacks -- whether foiled or carried out -- there is one overarching motive driving their actions it's their embrace of the jihadist ideology.

Urban Jihad

From all what we know related to the previously foiled plots at Fort Dix, the Virginia Paintball scheme, the Miami Sears Tower group, the Oregon terrorist training group and much more, and in light of what we witnessed in Mumbai few months ago, we need to realize that the developing trend and the threats to come will most likely look like a combination of all the above. The new face of terrorisism is an urban jihad, as I described it in 2005.

The Bottom Line

These arrests, on top of all the previous arrests that tell us one thing: The jihadists are still at war with America -- and all other democracies around the world. They haven't stopped fighting. And they will continue to try to defeat us, whether they are citizens or not, regardless of their ethnic background. They are united under one ideology yet they are also protected by our laws and they are taking full advantage of our wrong-headed debate on national security. If we don't see the jihadists as an "army" spreading across the country and if we do not educate our public as much as we need to about them, one day --despite the bravery of our law enforcement officiers -- there will be a terror cell that will succeed in its mission. I can only hope that that day won't ever come.

Dr. Walid Phares is the Director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of "The Confrontation: Winning the War Against Future Jihad."

Walid Phares, Ph.D., joined Fox News in January 2007 and serves as Middle East and terrorism expert. He is a foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and author of several books including "Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies Against the West" (Palgrave Macmillan Trade 2006).