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FBI Foils Plot To Bomb New York Synagogues

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David Greene Discusses The Arrests On Morning Edition

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Four men have been arrested for allegedly plotting to bomb two Jewish synagogues in the Riverdale section of the Bronx and shoot down U.S. warplanes at an Air National Guard Base in upstate New York.

The arrests came after a yearlong investigation in which an FBI informant sold the men inert explosives and a defused surface-to-air missile, prosecutors said. Officials say they were arrested Wednesday night shortly after planting what they thought was a 37-pound explosive device outside the Riverside Temple and two similar devices in the back seat of a car outside the nearby Riverdale Jewish Center.

Prosecutors also say the men — all U.S. citizens —sought to obtain Stinger surface-to-air missiles in order to shoot down military planes at the Air National Guard Base at Stewart Airport in Newburgh, about 70 miles north of New York City.

The suspects — James Cromitie, 55; David Williams, 28; Onta Williams, 32; and Laguerre Payen, all of Newburgh — have been charged with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction within the United States and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles. If convicted, they each face 25 years to life in prison.

All the suspects except Payen appeared in federal court in White Plains on Thursday, their hands shackled to their waists. Payen, who officials said is of Haitian descent, was expected to appear in court later Thursday.

Lawyers for the defendants did not seek bail.

In arguing against bail, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Snyder told the judge "it's hard to envision a more chilling plot" and described the men as "extremely violent."

They were "disappointed ... that the best target [the World Trade Center] was hit already," Snyder said, adding that the men were "eager to bring death to Jews." He also said Cromitie wanted to see what he did on TV and be able to say, "I'm the one who did that."

Earlier, acting U.S. Attorney Lev L. Dassin said the group planned to "destroy a synagogue and a Jewish community center with C-4 plastic explosives."

New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said at a news conference that the men allegedly "wanted to commit jihad," but the city's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, warned against stereotypes. He stressed that the temple is open to people of all faiths, including a Muslim girl who sometimes prays there.

"This latest attempt to attack our freedoms shows that the homeland security threats against New York City are sadly all too real and underscores why we must remain vigilant in our efforts to prevent terrorism," the mayor said in a statement.

Bloomberg and Kelly met privately with congregants Thursday inside the Riverdale Jewish Center.

The national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement praising law enforcers "for their efforts in helping to prevent any harm to either Jewish institutions or to our nation's military."

"We repeat the American Muslim community's repudiation of bias-motivated crimes and of anyone who would falsely claim religious justification for violent actions," read the statement from Nihad Awad.

New York Rep. Peter King, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, also praised the investigation, saying, "It shows how real the threat is from homegrown terrorists."

The arrests came after a nearly yearlong undercover operation that began in Newburgh. The defendants bought a digital camera at Wal-Mart to take pictures of targets, they spoke in code, and they expressed their hatred of Jews on several occasions, according to a criminal complaint.

In June 2008, the FBI informant met Cromitie in Newburgh. Cromitie said his parents had lived in Afghanistan and that he was upset about the war there and that many Muslim people were being killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan by U.S. military forces, officials said.

Cromitie also expressed an interest in doing "something to America," according to the complaint.

In October 2008, the informant began meeting with the defendants at a Newburgh house equipped with concealed video and audio equipment, the complaint said.

Beginning in April 2009, the four men selected the synagogues they intended to hit and also conducted surveillance of military planes at the Air National Guard Base, according to the complaint.

In a statement, New York Sen. Charles Schumer called the suspects "relatively unsophisticated" and said the New York Police Department and the FBI told him the suspects had no connection to other terrorist groups.

From NPR staff and wire reports