The arrests of four would-be jihadists in New York serves as a reminder of the dangers of homegrown terrorists, but counterterrorism analysts told The Washington Times that such groups are generally too amateurish to pull off attacks similar to those of al Qaeda, Hamas or Hezbollah.
“They’re not crafty; they’re not professional,” said Ken Piernick, who worked at the FBI’s counterterrorism division and retired in 2003. “But it doesn’t mean somebody else couldn’t pull it off.”
Authorities arrested the four men late Wednesday on charges that they planned to bomb synagogues and use surface-to-air missiles to blow U.S. military planes out of the sky. The men all apparently met while serving prison sentences and were exposed by an FBI informant whom they thought was a member of a Pakistani terrorist group that would supply them with weapons.
James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen are charged with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction in the United States and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles.
They appeared in federal court Thursday, which ordered them held without bond. The four men, three of whom are American-born, each face life in prison if convicted. At least three of the men are reportedly Muslims. Federal charging documents do not specify their religion, but make it clear that the supposed motive was “jihad” against America and Jews.
A U.S. intelligence official who spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity cited this case as an example of how U.S.-born jihadists are usually more bluster than serious threat, unless they contact serious international terrorism networks and weapons smugglers.
The New York suspects “were stopped early enough. They would have become dangerous when they become useful idiots for someone who really is plugged in,” the official said.
He analogized this case with Jose Padilla, a jailhouse convert to Islam “who was just mad at ‘the man.’ ” But he latched onto al Qaeda and was able to go to Afghanistan with some useful knowledge, where “he was empowered by people who are professional terrorists.” Unless domestic jihadists “get to that level, they would just be cannon fodder.”
The New York group’s reported efforts to get weapons, which resulted in their encounter with the FBI informant, is “the point at which [domestic terrorists] could become a public threat … Until that time, you’re just a crackpot” who doesn’t threaten the public safety, the official said, noting also that “that’s also when you can get evidence that can convict somebody in a court of law.”
Mr. Piernick, the retired FBI counterterrorism official, said domestic-terrorism groups could be hard to identify “if they are disciplined and mind their p’s and q’s.”
But those involved in such schemes are typically egocentric and self-absorbed and don’t pay close enough attention to what they say and to whom they say it, he noted, adding that this is frequently how such groups come under law enforcement scrutiny.
Mr. Piernick said these groups also are not sophisticated enough to notice out-of-the ordinary occurrences that could be a clue they are under investigation.
“Even law enforcement leaves clues,” he said.
According to authorities in the New York case, Mr. Cromitie appeared to be the ringleader and told the informant, whom he met at a mosque in Newburgh, N.Y., that he wanted to do “something to America” and also hated Jews.
Mr. Cromitie said his parents had lived in Afghanistan and he was angry the U.S. military killing Muslims in that country and Pakistan. The two Williamses, who do not appear to be related, are also Americans; Mr. Payen is a native of Haiti.
The informant - who posed as a member of Jaish-e-Mohammed, which wants to end India’s rule of Kashmir - told Mr. Cromitie that he could get him explosives and surface-to-air guided missiles, the FBI said.
After the four men hatched a plan to attack a synagogue in the Bronx and aircraft at an Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, according to the FBI, the informant sold them phony C-4 plastic explosives and Stinger surface-to-air missiles that wouldn’t have worked even had the plot gone off as “planned.”
The men were arrested after planting the phony explosives at a synagogue.
• Victor Morton contributed to the report.