Four men arrested Wednesday night in a plot to bomb two synagogues in New York City and a military air base to its north were homegrown terrorists who wanted to "commit jihad," police officials said Thursday.
Onta Williams also known as Hamza is led by police officers from a federal building in New York, Thursday, after being arrested by the FBI on charges related to a plot to bomb targets in the Bronx section of New York.
According to police, the men - ringleader James Cromitie (also known as Abdul Rahman), David Williams (Daoud), Onta Williams (Hamza) and Laguerre Payen (Amin) - were petty criminals who met in prison and had no ties to other terrorist cells.
All the suspects except Payen appeared in federal court in White Plains on Thursday, their hands shackled to their waists. Payen was expected to appear in court later Thursday. Lawyers for the defendants did not seek bail.
All are US citizens, Muslim, and live about 100 km. north of New York City in Newburgh, New York.
"They stated that they wanted to commit jihad," said New York City's police commissioner, Ray Kelly, at a news conference at the Bronx's Riverdale Jewish Center, one of the targets of the bomb plot. Fueled by anger over the war in Afghanistan, they sought retaliation against the United States.
"They wanted to kill people. They wanted to do significant damage.
The Riverdale Temple in the Bronx section in New York is shown Wednesday night.
"They made virulent anti-Semitic comments," said Kelly, who referred to the men as homegrown terrorists.
In a dramatic sting operation by New York City police officers and FBI agents, the men were arrested shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday, just after planting a fake bomb in the trunk of a car outside the Riverdale Temple and two fake bombs in the backseat of a car outside the Riverdale Jewish Center. The men, who believed the explosives were real, obtained the weapons from an informant who was working with law enforcement officials.
After attacking the synagogues, the men planned to shoot military planes with guided missiles at the New York Air National Guard Base at Stewart Airport in Newburgh.
But Wednesday night, police blocked their SUV with an 18-wheeler and smashed in the darkened windows of their vehicle as they moved to leave the vicinity of the temple.
Officials said the arrests followed a nearly yearlong undercover operation that started in Newburgh, where all four suspects live. Police said three of them were converts to Islam.
According to police, one of the suspects, Cromitie, met the informant in Newburgh in June 2008. His parents lived in Afghanistan before he was born, and he complained that Muslims were being killed there and he wanted to do "something to America," according to the criminal complaint. By October, the informant met all four defendants at a house in Newburgh that was wired with video and audio surveillance equipment. Last month, the men targeted the two synagogues in Riverdale, and conducted surveillance of military planes at the air base.
On Thursday, Kelly said the plot "speaks to our concern about homegrown terrorism."
At least one suspect - Payen - reportedly spent time at a Newburgh mosque, Masjid al-Ikhlas. "He had a lot of psychological problems," Hamin Rashada, a life coach there, told the Times Herald-Record of Middletown. "He's a strange kid."
Rashada said he encouraged Payen - whom he believed concerted to Islam in prison - to attend Friday prayers and classes at the mosque. The classes were meant to put Islamic teachings in context, he said. Payen attended only occasionally.
Elected officials and terrorism experts said the plot underscored the growing threat of homegrown terrorism in the United States and worldwide. In recent years, homegrown terrorists have been linked to several attacks, including the 2007 Fort Dix terror plot in New Jersey, the 2006 bomb plot in Rockford, Illinois, and the 2005 Los Angeles terror plot. In 2002, terrorists planned to bomb Jewish-owned businesses in South Florida, as well as the Israeli Consulate in Miami and Jewish community centers nearby.
"The bombing plot uncovered by law enforcement is another reminder of the extreme lengths of violence anti-Semites will go to act on their hatred," said Kenneth Jacobson, acting director of the Anti-Defamation League's New York office, in a statement circulated Thursday.
According to Maki Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan who works with the NYPD, the emergence of homegrown terrorists is "in the early stages, but I think it will definitely grow."
After September 11, the department beefed up its counterterrorism operations and now had about 1,000 officers engaged in counterterrorism work, Haberfeld said. "They are probably the most proactive force in the United States," she said.
According to Haberfeld, things like a poor economy and personal frustration can fuel the tendency of someone who resorts to terrorist activity. "It's a combination of various types of frustrations that people are looking to understand why things are happening to them," she said.
In the United States, prisons play a role in homegrown terror cells, according to experts. The phenomenon of converting inmates to radical brands of Islam was documented in 2004, when a Justice Department investigation concluded that Al-Qaida was recruiting prison inmates. The investigation found that safeguards at more than 100 federal prisons were too loose, causing chapels there to be vulnerable to infiltration by religious extremists.
"There's jailhouse Islam," said Steven Emerson, who founded the Investigative Project on Terrorism to track Islamic terrorist groups. "Homegrown used to apply to white, indigenous Americans. Now the term has been coopted to apply to radical jihadists who were born in the United States and are not tethered to any group," he said.
"They get together and they become radicalized because of the mosque, or what they see on the Internet. It's virtually impossible to stop them unless you have an informant."