By Michael Hill and Jim Fitzgerald
NEWBURGH, N.Y. — The four men were ex-convicts who envisioned themselves as holy warriors, ambitious enough to concoct a plot to blow up synagogues and military planes, authorities said. But they were amateurs every step of the way. They had trouble finding guns and bought cameras at Wal-Mart to photograph their targets. One was a convicted purse snatcher, another smoked marijuana the day the plot was to be carried out.
Muslims fueled by hatred of America and Jews, they spent months scouting targets and securing what they thought was a surface-to-air missile system and powerful explosives - all under the watch of an FBI informant.
The four were arrested late Wednesday outside a synagogue in the Bronx, following a long line of homegrown, headline-making terror plots since Sept. 11 that never came close to reality because the FBI inserted itself in the earliest stages.
The bombs they planted outside two synagogues Wednesday were useless, packed with inert explosives supplied by the FBI instead of the Pakistani terrorist group they had pledged to support, according to a criminal complaint.
Still, officials see the case as a vivid reminder of risks the U.S. faces from homegrown terrorists.
"It's hard to envision a more chilling plot," assistant U.S. attorney Eric Snyder said. "These are extremely violent men."
James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen were calm as they appeared in court Thursday with their hands shackled, to answer charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction within the United States and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles. They did not enter pleas and were held without bail; they face life in prison if convicted.
Besides destroying the two synagogues in the heavily Jewish Riverdale section of the Bronx, they intended to shoot down planes at the Air National Guard base in Newburgh, about 50 miles north of New York City, prosecutors said.
Relatives said the defendants were down-on-their-luck men who worked at places like Wal-Mart, a landscaping company and a warehouse when they weren't behind bars. Payen's lawyer said he was "intellectually challenged" and on medication for schizophrenia. Marilyn Reader said he has "a very low borderline" IQ.
David Williams' relatives were floored by the allegations against a man they knew as a good father to his 7-year-old daughter and newborn son.
"You don't raise your children to be terrorists," said Aahkiyaah Cummings, his aunt. "I don't know that guy that was arrested."
Just four years ago, Williams, now 28, told a parole board that prison was a wake-up call after his conviction on drug and weapons charges - drugs he said he sold because was making only $150 a week in his job.
Onta Williams, 32, and Cromitie have also served prison sentences for drug convictions - Cromitie said in court he had used marijuana as recently as Wednesday. He said he was 55, though law enforcement records give his age as 44.
Payen, 27, did time for attempted assault - in 2002, he and others fired a BB gun out an SUV window, hitting two people in the head. He snatched purses from two women later the same day, said state Division of Parole spokeswoman Heather Groll.
Payen appears to be a Haitian citizen, while the other three are Americans. The Williamses are not related.
New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said he believed the defendants knew each other from their time behind bars. Relatives said Payen, David Williams and Onta (pronounced ON-tay) Williams were introduced to Islam in prison - a phenomenon present in prisons around the country in recent years.
"The Onta I know wouldn't do something like this, but the new Onta, yeah," said Richard Williams, an uncle. "He wasn't raised this way. All this happened when he became a Muslim in prison."
He said his nephew, who loaded tractor-trailer trucks at a warehouse, had been shaken by his mother's death in 2006 and a separation from his wife. She has custody of his three children.
Payen was apparently staying in a rundown house that neighbors say was known as a home for parolees. Penniless and jobless, he had been fighting deportation and seeking custody of his 3-year-old son, said Hamin Rashada, an assistant imam at the Masjid al-Iklahs mosque, where authorities say the informant first met Cromitie in June 2008.
Cromitie was burning with anger about the U.S. war in Afghanistan, where his parents had lived before he was born, according to the criminal complaint. He told the informant he was interested in jihad and "doing something to America" and was crestfallen that "the best target (the World Trade Center) was hit already," the complaint said.
In the same conversation, Cromitie said: "I hate those mother-------, those f------ Jewish b------ .... I would like to get (destroy) a synagogue," according to the complaint.
In one conversation, Cromitie said how he longed to shoot Jews in the head as they walked on the street near a synagogue, the informant said. In another conversation with the informant, Onta Williams said that the U.S. military is killing Muslims "so if we kill them here with IEDs and Stingers, it is equal," according to court papers.
A woman who answered the phone at a Bronx listing for several of Cromitie's relatives said she didn't want to speak about him and hung up. No one answered the door at his Newburgh address, but neighbor Luis Pena said Cromitie was a real nice guy.
The complaint portrays Cromitie as the instigator of the conspiracy, telling the informant last July that he wanted to join Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistani terrorist group with which the informant claimed to be involved. Authorities say Jaish set up training camps in Afghanistan under the Taliban, and several senior operatives were close to Osama bin Laden.
By December, Cromitie was asking the informant to supply explosives and surface-to-air missiles, in one of many discussions secretly recorded in a Newburgh home the FBI had outfitted with video and audio equipment, the complaint said.
The suspects obtained the weapons - not knowing they were disabled - earlier this month, according to the complaint.
But much of their scheme was more pedestrian, according to the complaint. The alleged plot fit a pattern of schemes involving ragtag groups of aspiring terrorists infiltrated and brought down before they could do any harm.
The plots include the "Virginia jihad network," a group of men accused in 2003 that trained with paintball games In Los Angeles, four men including the founder of a radical Islamic prison group were charged in 2005 with conspiring to attack synagogues and other targets. And seven men in Miami were accused of planning to blow up the Sears Tower. Two of those men were later acquitted.
In New York, authorities have broken up plots to bomb gas pipelines near Kennedy Airport and the tunnels underneath the Hudson River.
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Some have criticized informants' roles in such cases, saying they egged on and ensnared suspects who weren't dangerous.