By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Last month, police and the FBI arrested four Newburgh men on charges that they had plotted to bomb synagogues in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx and fire a missile at a military jet.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly held press conferences at the synagogues to reassure New Yorkers about their safety. During Kelly's remarks, it was startling to hear the commissioner refer to al-Qaeda by name, if only to say that the four purported home-grown terrorists had no ties to Osama Bin Laden's organization.
As more details emerged, however, the less the four defendants sounded like men with the skills to plan a sophisticated terror plot. They were small-time crooks, felons with long criminal records whose previous activities revolved around smoking marijuana and playing video games. One defendant, Laguerre Payen, was arrested in a crack house surrounded by bottles of his own urine; his lawyer describes him as "mildly retarded."
It seemed fairly astounding that, for a full calendar year, such a group could remain interested in and plan anything more complex than a backyard barbecue, let alone a multipronged paramilitary assault, as the indictment against them alleged.
But what the indictment didn't say, and what the initial news reports didn't fill in, was the extent to which the fifth man in the plot, an unnamed FBI informant, had provided the glue to hold the Newburgh 4 together.
That informant was a Pakistani man named Shahed Hussain, code-named "Malik," who agreed to work for the FBI to obtain leniency after he was arrested in 2002 for fraud.
Over a period of about a year, Malik met with defendants James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams, and Payen while under FBI surveillance. Cromitie allegedly said he was upset about U.S. forces killing people in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He talked about being willing to die as a martyr, and threatened to "do something to America."
The Newburgh bomb plot isn't the first of Malik's operations for the government. He played a similar role four years ago in an Albany case, in which he helped the FBI arrest a man named Mohammed Hossain, a cash-poor pizzeria owner, and his imam, Yassin Aref, after persuading them to launder $50,000 in a made-up plot to bring a missile to the U.S. and assassinate the Pakistani prime minister.
In both cases, Malik did not stumble upon active terror cells plotting to bring destruction on American soil. Instead, in both Newburgh and Albany, he needed long periods of time to recruit his Muslim contacts, spin elaborate tales about his terror contacts, and develop solid plans of action, all the while providing the defendants with large amounts of resources and cash incentives.
Malik was so successful that in Riverdale, the Newburgh 4 planted what they believed were actual bombs at two synagogues. In Albany, the defendants were only involved in a cash transaction that, theoretically, was tied to the sale of a weapon.
But in each case, the question remains: Would either set of defendants have done anything remotely like plant bombs or launder money for terrorists if not for the prodding and plotting and encouragement of Malik and the FBI?
And there's a more troubling question: When Malik tells his FBI handlers that the defendants are saying menacing things about America, is he actually telling the whole truth? Translations from the Albany case transcripts suggest that Malik routinely exaggerated and, in some cases, wholly fabricated the words of the defendants. When they talked about Islam being a religion of peace and of jihad being a way of inspiring fealty to Islam, Malik instead told his handlers that they had talked about Islam inspiring them to kill. Those exaggerated reports became the basis for the FBI's case against Hossain and Aref, who were both convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Aref is now housed in a maximum-security federal prison in Marion, Illinois, where he is held under strict rules that limit his ability to speak with the outside world, in a unit euphemistically called the Communication Management Program. Under the program's rules, he is allowed just one 15-minute phone call each week and is not allowed any contact visits. Hossain is housed in a federal prison in New Jersey.
The Newburgh 4 will face far longer sentences because they are accused of actually planting what they believed were explosive devices.
Like in the Albany case, however, they will be prosecuted almost entirely on the work done by Malik, who arrived in Newburgh about a year ago, driving a shiny black BMW and flashing a lot of cash.
As he had done in Albany, Malik showed up in Newburgh, went to a local mosque, and started looking for recruits.
He found them in four convicted felons with dozens of arrests between them. He initiated the conversations, introduced the idea of a terror plot, and delivered the money, equipment, and resources to back it up. He quickly became known as the guy with ready cash who was interested in the lives of others and was quick to provide aid and comfort.
Malik even offered to pay medical bills when he found out that one of his targets, David Williams, had a brother fighting liver cancer.