N.Y. Terror Suspects Appear in Court, Accused of 'Chilling Plot'

Men accused of plotting to bomb NYC synagogues appeared in court today.

ByPierre Thomas, Richard Esposito, Jack Date, Aaron Katersky, Erin Keohane and Theresa Cook
May 20, 2009, 3:40 PM

May 21, 2009— -- The four men arrested Wednesday night and accused of plotting to place bombs at New York City synagogues and shoot down National Guard jets appeared in court today, and an attorney for one of the defendants claimed his client suffers from mental illness.

At a hearing for three of the defendants, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Snyder called the men "extremely violent" and said, "It's hard to envision a more chilling plot."

Authorities said today that the plot was real, but that the bombs allegedly planted were dummies, made from bogus materials supplied as part of a law enforcement sting.

Shackled at the waist and wrists and under tight security, James Cromitie, David Williams and Onta Williams appeared before federal magistrate judge Lisa Smith at the federal courthouse in White Plains, N.Y.

The three men, all U.S. citizens accused of a homegrown terror plot to detonate bombs outside the Riverdale Jewish Center and the Riverdale Temple in the Bronx section of New York City and shoot down military planes Stewart Air National Guard Base in upstate New York, appeared incredulous as Snyder detailed the allegations against them.

At a later hearing, the fourth suspect, a Haitian citizen with permanent resident alien status named Laguerre Payen, slouched as he walked in, appearing disheveled in a black button-down shirt and jeans and sporting a bandage above his right eye.

His court-appointed attorney told the judge that Payen was given medications after his arrest, and that he suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. But Snyder expressed disbelief at the mental health claim, saying Payen appeared "enthusiastic" about the alleged plot in surveillance videos recorded by the FBI.

Earlier, medical personnel treated Payen for a cut above the eye; he received three stitches and the hospital cleared him for release before his court appearance. During the late-night arrest, FBI agents had blown open the windows of an SUV the suspects were riding in and pulled them out of the vehicle to take them into custody.

All four face charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction within the United States and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles. If convicted on the charges, they could face sentences of life in prison.

Authorities had placed the suspects under surveillance almost a year ago, and the U.S. attorney's office prosecuting the case released a criminal complaint after the suspects' Wednesday arrest.

At the first hearing, the three suspects spoke minimally in court, but Cromitie's lawyer told the judge his client needs medical treatment for an injury sustained from broken glass at the scene during his arrest.

The judge asked the defendants if they had used alcohol or drugs in the past 24 hours, and Cromitie admitted that he had used marijuana.

Smith ordered all of the men to the Westchester County Jail, where they will remain until their next court appearance June 5.

Terror Plot Suspects 'Wanted to Commit Jihad'

Speaking earlier today at a press conference outside the targeted sites, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said the suspects "stated that they wanted to commit jihad."

But Kelly noted that the public was not in danger from the bombs, which were not viable.

"I want to stress, as we did last night, that no one was at risk -- this was a very tightly controlled operation -- but these individuals did in fact place these bombs, or what they thought to be bombs, in vehicles" in front of the two locations.

The men -- at least three of whom appear to be recent radicalized converts to Islam, according to law enforcement sources -- all lived near the city of Newburgh, N.Y., about 60 miles north of New York City.

Kelly said an informant working with authorities drove the group to the site. Once there, Cromitie, the suspected ringleader, allegedly planted the bombs and the remaining three suspects served as lookouts, Kelly said. The entire operation only took about 20 to 25 minutes, and authorities arrested the suspects as they returned to their car.

The men surrendered without incident, Kelly said, and were not armed with additional weapons.

Kelly said all the men had criminal records, with Cromitie's being the most extensive, and each has spent time in prison. Authorities believe the men linked up through their prison ties, he added.

Kelly shared his concern about homegrown terrorism with ABC News after the news conference, saying that events like these remind the NYPD that, "We have to keep our guard up, that we have to continue to be vigilant as far as the threat of homegrown terrorism is concerned."

Former FBI agent and ABC News consultant Brad Garrett explained the dangers of the particular type of terror, in which operatives act alone or in small groups not tied to larger terror networks.

Comparing recruitment to that of a gang or cult, he said, "You find people who maybe do not have a direction in life, and they all of a sudden get caught up in, perhaps, a cause."

That cause might be about ideals at first, he said, but leaders of a small cell who are "giving them a purpose in life" might encourage action. And there's no need to travel to, for example, a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, Garrett said. "Now, you can do it here."

Because they don't have a nexus to a larger group, homegrown terror groups are harder to discover, and cases against them are very difficult to piece together without an informant infiltrating the group, according to Garrett.

"The unknown is: How many are out there just like this group that are thinking, plotting, perhaps even about to implement some plan?" Garrett said.

Kelly: Officials Watched Plot Unfold on TV Screen

The effort to dismantle the alleged New York plot geared up before the arrest, as authorities set up shop a few blocks from the targeted sites to observe the suspects through various surveillance methods, including helicopter support and a live video stream, Kelly said.

"We were able to watch it on a television screen," Kelly told ABC News. "We saw an individual put the bomb in the first car in the trunk, and then we saw him approach in a rather, you know, a stealthful manner approach the second vehicle, and we saw him put them on the seat of the vehicle, so we were actually observing what he did."

Kelly called the operation a "great cooperative effort" between law enforcement agencies, including the NYPD, FBI and other state and local agencies.

"It was a great cooperative effort on the part of all the law enforcement agencies involved," including the NYPD, FBI and other state and local agencies, Kelly added. "And, you know, you can have a plan, but things don't always go according to that plan. But this operation did," and personnel involved "did a phenomenal job."

The investigation of the men began in June 2008, according to court documents, when met with a person who had been an FBI informant for more than six years and allegedly talked about his anger about U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and said he was interested in doing "something to America."

According to the criminal complaint, Cromitie told an FBI informant in June 2008 that his parents lived in Afghanistan before he was born, and because of his ties to that country, he was upset about the war there.

Then in November of last year, Cromitie allegedly discussed targets with the informant, saying, "the best target [the World Trade Center] was hit already." Later in that conversation, the complaint says, Cromitie stated, "I hate those motherf-----s, those f-----g Jewish bastards. ... I would like to get [destroy] a synagogue."

The complaint says that on April 28, the group met at a house in Newburgh, which the FBI had placed under surveillance, to discus the alleged plot.

Confirming that each of the alleged co-conspirators was willing to carry out the operation for jihad, Onta Williams allegedly stated, "They [the U.S. military] are killing Muslim brothers and sisters in Muslim countries, so, if we kill them here, with IED's [improvised explosive devices] and stingers, it is equal."

Also according to the complaint, David Williams added that if the alleged plot killed Jews, "it does not matter."

In another recorded meeting between Cromitie and the informant on Dec. 5, 2008, according to the documents, the suspect allegedly asked the informant to get him surface-to-air missiles and explosives. The complaint says that on May 6, Cromitie, David Williams and Payen drove with the informant from Newburgh to Stamford, Conn., where the three defendants were shown what they were told were a missile system and improvised explosive devices containing C-4 plastic explosives.

'Allah Akbar'

After inspecting the supposed weapons, they allegedly brought them back to Newburgh and put them in a storage locker, according to the documents.

"The three defendants celebrated their achievement shouting 'Allah Akbar,' an Arabic phrase that means 'praise be to God,'" according to the documents.

At today's news conference, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised the efforts of the law enforcement agencies, but said, "Sadly, I think we're just reminded that peace is fragile, democracy is fragile and we have to be vigilant all the time."

"The good news here is that the NYPD and the FBI did exactly what they're trained to do, and have prevented what could be a terrible event in our city," he continued.

But before he left the event, Bloomberg added that rather than feeling afraid about the discovery of the alleged plot, "to me, I come out of this feeling more confident than ever before that when there is something, the police department discovers it and stops it."

In contending that the suspects stand alone in their alleged beliefs, Bloomberg recalled a recent visit to the targeted facilities in which he observed positive interactions between the Jewish and Muslim communities in the neighborhood.

"I think we've got to be very careful to not stereotype anybody," he said. "The sad thing is there are four people who fortunately, our police department stopped, but most people in New York City want to live together, work together, and I think we're as safe today as we've been ever before."

ABC News' Dean Schabner contributed to this report.

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