By STEPHAN SALISBURY
Posted by Bulatlat.com
Informers have by now become our first line of defense in our battles with the evildoers, the go-to guys in the never-ending domestic war on terror. They regularly do the dirty work — suggesting and encouraging the plots, laboring as bag men to move the money, fashioning the bombs, and eliciting the flamboyant dialogue, even while following the scripts of their handlers to the letter. They have attended to all the little details that make for the successful and now familiar arrests, criminal complaints, trials, and (for the most part) convictions in the ever-distracting war against… what? Al-Qaeda? Terror? Muslims? The inept? The poor?
The Liberty City Seven, the Fort Dix Six, the Detroit Ummah Conspiracy, the Newburgh Four — each has had their fear-filled day in the sun. None of these plots ever came close to happening. How could they? All were bogus from the get-go: money to buy missiles or cell phones or shoes and fancy duds — provided by the authorities; plans for how to use the missiles and bombs and cell phones — provided by authorities; cars for transport and demolition — issued by the authorities; facilities for carrying out the transactions — leased by those same authorities. Played out on landscapes manufactured by federal imagineers, the climax of each drama was foreordained. The failure of the plots would then be touted as the success of the investigations and prosecutions.
A band of virtually homeless and penniless men in Florida, we were told, were planning to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago. They just needed the right combat boots to pull it off, and a little free money.
A cell of New Jersey roofers, handymen, and cab drivers was scheming to use a laminated pizza delivery map to guide them through a devastating attack on Fort Dix, the enormous military base in Burlington County, south of Trenton.
Ex-cons in Detroit, mostly known for patronizing a weekly soup kitchen to stave off hunger, were also planning to set up their own country in Michigan under Islamic law.
And a band of Orange County New York parolees and former drug peddlers placed bombs at two Bronx synagogues and was preparing to launch missile attacks on military cargo planes at Stewart National Guard Air Base in Newburgh.
In the Liberty City Seven case, which revolved around two informants paid in excess of $130,000 for their services, the government tried the hapless defendants three times before finally wresting a conviction from a jury. One defendant was acquitted at the first trial, another in the third, and five were eventually convicted of at least some terrorism-related charges. In the Fort Dix case, jurors were shown horrific films said to be on a computer owned by one of the defendants, who claimed an FBI informant demanded more and more videos for viewing.
Another defendant actually called the Philadelphia police, mid-plot, and said he was being pressured to commit radical acts by what turned out to be an FBI informer. Prosecutors dismissed this as an obvious decoy maneuver. The key informer in that case — the FBI eventually paid two people to spy on the group — an Egyptian on probation, received $236,000 for his services.
Most recently, this duplicitous landscape of war-on-terror “success” has been illuminated yet again by the case of four alleged Newburgh, New York, conspirators — the Newburgh Four — and in the botched arrest and fatal shooting (a first for federal authorities) of an African American imam in Detroit, leader of the so-called Ummah Conspiracy. As the details have slowly emerged, these two cases offer vivid examples of how government-scripted many of the terror plots “uncovered” in the U.S. in recent years have turned out to be. Each case, in fact, offers a window onto a stark world in which nothing is what it seems to be.
The “Un-Terrorism Case”
In the years following 9/11, when I was reporting my book, Mohamed’s Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland, many defense and immigration attorneys I interviewed insisted that the mere mention of “terrorism” has often been enough to knock down any and all defenses. In the Newburgh conspiracy, however, the federal judge, Colleen McMahon, has shown a more questioning attitude toward what, in a May 28, 2010, pre-trial hearing, she took to calling the “un-terrorism case.”
After their May 2009 arrests, the four Newburgh conspirators were portrayed as Jew-hating Muslim converts who intended to blow up synagogues in the Bronx and shoot down military planes based at Stewart Airport in Newburgh. “It’s hard to envision a more chilling plot,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Snyder at the time, describing the defendants as “extremely violent.”
The men were indeed arrested only after placing bogus bombs (courtesy of the FBI) near two Bronx synagogues. New York Police Chief Raymond Kelly said the plotters believed “it would be alright” to kill Jews. The Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a statement noting that the uncovered plot cooked up by “the jihadist terrorists” showed “that the dangers from such fanaticism have not passed and that American Jews must maintain their vigilance.” New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg reiterated that vigilance remains a necessity for all concerned.
With their anti-Semitic bona fides established and the men caught in the act, all that seemed left was a perfunctory trial, followed by life in prison for James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams, and Laguerre Payen. A decade earlier, Cromitie had been arrested for dealing drugs behind a school. Payen, a Haitian immigrant, is a crack addict and certified paranoid schizophrenic, often found living on the street; his earlier deportation had been on hold due to his mental instability. Onta and David Williams, not related, had pasts pocked by drug busts and spotty work at minimum wage jobs scrounged from Newburgh’s depressed economy. All four men were black.
Almost immediately, however, questions about the conspiracy began to arise. For one thing, the FBI informer who broke the case was a Pakistani named Shaheed Hussain, who arrived in Newburgh in the summer of 2008 driving a flashy Mercedes, showing lots of money, and promising jobs to down-and-out African American hangers-on at Masjid al-Ikhlas, Newburgh’s main mosque. Convicted in a fraudulent driver’s license scheme in 2002, he agreed to work undercover for the FBI shortly afterward to avoid deportation and turned out to have been an informer in a previous terrorism case in Albany in 2004.
The Albany case, in which an imam and a pizza shop owner were convicted of money laundering as part of a phantasmagorical scheme to kill a Pakistani diplomat with a missile, was bitterly contested by defense attorneys. They claimed that the elaborate plan had been concocted by Hussain himself. The jury didn’t buy it, convicting both imam and pizza shop owner.
The Newburgh case shares much with the Albany case, especially a fondness for baroque plotting, the flashing of great wads of money in front of needy people, and the aggressive use of an informant by the FBI in a house of worship, in this case Masjid al-Ikhlas. The intricate plotting and the use of an informer made it into the criminal complaint, but all that flashing money didn’t. There was no mention of the enticing job offers made by the seemingly well-to-do informer. Nothing about his offer of a $250,000 payment for carrying out the plot. Nothing about the BMW he pushed on Cromitie, who didn’t even have a driver’s license. Nothing about the $25,000 he was ready to pay anyone willing to act as a “lookout.”
Maybe Cromitie wasn’t the brightest hustler in town, but he was quite capable of grasping the significance of such sums of money in distressed Newburgh. He assured Hussain that dangling cash would lure participants, no matter what. “They will do it for the money,” he said. “They’re not even thinking about the cause.”
Nor did the complaint mention, as the defense now maintains, that even the anti-Semitic talk was triggered by the informant. He baited the defendants, telling them that Jews were responsible for the U.S. wars in the Middle East and for other acts of violence against Muslims. Cromitie had an unexpected reaction during one of these conversations, according to government transcripts. “I’m not gonna hurt anybody,” he said, after being badgered about possible attacks. “The plane thing… is out of the question.”