Four men sought to wage a holy war against America when they plotted to bomb two New York City synagogues and shoot down military planes in upstate New York — and they were dismayed that a better target had already been hit, authorities said Thursday.
Accused terrorists James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen of Newburgh, N.Y., were disappointed that the World Trade Center was no longer around to attack, a federal prosecutor said.
All the suspects except Payen appeared in federal court in White Plains, N.Y., on Thursday, their hands shackled to their waists. They were held without bail after defense lawyers didn't seek it.
Payen was expected to appear in court later Thursday.
Cromitie, 55; David Williams, 28; Onta Williams, 32; and Payen were charged with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction within the United States and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles.
In arguing against bail, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Snyder told the judge "it's hard to envision a more chilling plot" and described the men as "extremely violent."
They were "disappointed...that the best target (the World Trade Center) was hit already," he said, adding that the men were "eager to bring death to Jews." He also said Cromitie wanted to see what he did on TV and be able to say, "I'm the one who did that."
Snyder quoted one of the defendants as saying: "I would like to get a synagogue."
Earlier Thursday, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told reporters that the accused terrorists "wanted to commit Jihad" because they were angry about Muslims being killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan by U.S. military forces.
The men allegedly planned to detonate a car with plastic explosives outside the Riverdale Temple, a Reform synagogue, and an Orthodox synagogue called the Riverdale Jewish Center, located a few blocks apart in the Bronx.
They also intended to shoot military planes at the Air National Guard base in Newburgh with Stinger surface-to-air guided missiles, authorities said.
"They stated that they wanted to commit jihad," Kelly said at a press conference outside the Riverdale Jewish Center. "They were disturbed about what happened in Afghanistan and Pakistan, that Muslims were being killed."
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The men were arrested Wednesday night, shortly after placing a 37-pound device they thought was an explosive in the trunk of a car outside the Riverdale Temple and two mock bombs in the backseat of a car outside the Riverdale Jewish Center, authorities said.
Police blocked their escape with an 18-wheel truck, smashing their tinted SUV windows and apprehending the unarmed suspects.
"If Jews were killed in this attack … that would be all right," Kelly quoted one of the accused terrorists as saying.
The arrests came following a nearly yearlong undercover operation that began in Newburgh, about 70 miles north of New York City.
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.
Kelly said he believed the men knew each other through prison. They had long rap sheets for charges including drug possession and assault.
During Thursday's hearing, Cromitie told the judge he had used marijuana on Wednesday but was clear-headed enough to understand the proceedings.
All four are U.S. citizens, according to authorities. Cromitie, David Williams and Onta Williams are native-born Americans, while Payen was born in Haiti.
Three of the men are converts to Islam, an official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Associated Press.
Payen occasionally attended a Newburgh mosque, according to Assistant Imam Hamin Rashada, who met Payen through a program that helps prisoners re-enter society.
Payen's statements on Islam often had to be corrected, Rashada said.
Asked why the suspects chose to target synagogues in the Bronx's Riverdale section, Kelly said the synagogues in the Bronx's Riverdale section were probably chosen because of "convenience" — saying the area's proximity to highways would make for a fast getaway route.
The defendants "wanted to engage in terrorist attacks," said acting U.S. Attorney Lev L. Dassin. "While the weapons provided ... by the cooperating witness were fake, the defendants thought they were absolutely real."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned against stereotypes, stressing that Riverdale Temple is open to people of all faiths, including a Muslim girl who sometimes prays there.
The mayor said 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."
According to a criminal complaint, Cromitie began unknowingly working with an FBI informant, who was acting under law enforcement supervision, in June 2008.
He told the government witness that his parents had lived in Afghanistan and he was upset with the ongoing war there, including the deaths of many Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan by U.S. military forces.
Cromitie said he wanted to return to Afghanistan and told the informant about how he'd go to "paradise" if he died a martyr, the complaint said.
He also expressed an interest in doing "something to America," according to 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.
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 Usama bin Laden.
Cromitie expressed interest in joining the group to "do jihad," according to a criminal complaint.
In April 2009, Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Payen identified the synagogues they wanted to hit and began conducting surveillance of them as well as of the Air National Guard base where they intended to strike military planes with Stinger missiles.
The government witness supplied them with a missile he said he'd obtained from Jaish-e-Mohammed, but instead, it was an FBI-made device that wasn't capable of being fired, according to the complaint. The informant also gave the group inert C-4 explosives.
Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Payen are each charged with one count of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction within the U.S., which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, and one count of conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison and a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison.
The defendants were jailed Wednesday night. Reporters yelled questions at three of the four men — Cromitie and David and Onta Williams — as they were taken in handcuffs into the Metropolitan Correctional Center, but the men didn't respond.
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 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.
Rashada, the assistant imam who lives near Payen in Newburgh, described parolee as a "strange kid."
“He had a lot of psychological problems," Rashada told the Times Herald-Record.
Since serving a 15-month prison term, Payen lived alternately in Newburgh and Middletown in upstate New York, with occasional stints on the street.
Rashada told the paper he met Payen through the Orange County Transition Center, a program that helps re-integrate parolees back into society.
A senior life coach with the program, Rashada worked with Payen and encouraged him to attend Friday prayers at Masjid al-Ikhlas in Newburgh, where Rashada is an assistant imam, according to the Herald-Record.
But Payen only attended the Newburgh mosque occasionally, Rashada told the paper. He said he assumed the former inmate must have been introduced to Islam in prison, where misunderstandings of its philosophies can occur because educated teachers can be difficult to find.
When he did attend, Rashada said Payen would try to impress other members of the mosque with knowledge of Islam, but was often incorrect.
Payen would then become quiet and wander off, Rashada told the paper.
A Jewish human rights group issued a statement saying the alleged plot and arrests show that Jews in the United States aren't safe.
"The shocking plan to blow up a Jewish house of prayer with what the jihadist terrorists thought were C-4 explosives is dramatic proof that the dangers from such fanaticism have not passed and that American Jews must maintain their vigilance," the Simon Wiesenthal Center said.
Bloomberg, Kelly and other city leaders met privately with congregants early Thursday to alleviate security concerns.
"The shock and being floored was followed by relief," David Winter, executive director of the Riverdale Jewish Center, said afterward.
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."
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.