Trial begins for 4 accused of plotting to bomb NY synagogues, shoot down military planes

Four men charged with trying to blow up New York synagogues and shoot down military planes were caught on videotape plotting and praying together before setting out to launch the attack, a prosecutor said Tuesday in opening statements at their trial.

"You will see them pray for success," Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Hickey told jurors in federal court in Manhattan.

The prosecutor said that alleged mastermind James Cromitie also was taped complaining that "the best target has been hit" — a reference to the World Trade Center. But the defendant also suggested the George Washington Bridge, a military transport plane and especially a synagogue were worthy targets for jihad.

"I hate those Jewish bastards," the prosecutor quoted Cromitie as saying. "I would like to get a synagogue for me personally."

Cromitie's lawyer countered by calling the 100 hours of videotape from the sting operation a "movie" produced and directed by a paid FBI informant assigned to root out radicals at a mosque in Newburgh, a small town north of New York City.

"The movie is not a documentary," said the attorney, Vincent Briccetti. "It's actually a work of fiction."

Cromitie, 44, and three men recruited as lookouts — Onta Williams, 34, David Williams, 29, and Laguerre Payen, 28 — have pleaded not guilty to a conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles to kill U.S. officers and employees.

The men were arrested on May 20, 2009, after they went to the synagogues in the Riverdale section of the Bronx to plant bombs and prepare to launch missiles at planes coming from the nearby Air National Guard base in Newburgh, unaware that weapons were inert devices supplied by the FBI.

Authorities say the informant, Shaheed Hussain, met Cromitie at the mosque in June 2008. Hussain was posing as a wealthy representative of a Pakistani terrorist organization.

The informant worked for months on the investigation, testing the defendants repeatedly to see if they were willing to go through with acts of terrorism, Hickey said Tuesday.

"Every one of these defendants jumped at those opportunities without hesitation," he said. "They were prepared to go all the way through with their destructive and murderous plans."

The prosecutor warned jurors to reject defense arguments that Hussain entrapped the defendants, but he conceded that the informant "was no wallflower. He acted like a facilitator for a terrorist group, planning, supplying, supporting."

Briccetti labeled Hussain "a master manipulator" who offered the defendant large sums of money and even a BMW to men who were uneducated and mostly unmotivated. He did so to entrap Cromitie in "a phony plot that he certainly would not have joined otherwise," the prosecutor said.

The lawyer added: "But for his lies, his tricks, his financial inducements and relentless pressure, James Cromitie and the other defendants could not and would not have been involved in any activity."

Onta Williams was exposed to Islam in jail but never became a radical, said his attorney, Susanne Body. She argued the government lured him into the scheme as a "bit player" so they could bring a conspiracy case.

"He is not a terrorist," she said. "He does not hate Jews. He does not hate America."