They became known as the “Newburgh Four”: James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams, and Laquerre Payen. The FBI arrested the four men on May 20, 2009, on terrorism-related offenses involving a plot to attack the Air National Guard in Newburgh, New York, by launching missiles onto Stewart Airfield and bomb two synagogues in Bronx, New York.
The core facts in the Newburgh Four case are chronicled in an August 2013 decision by the New York-based Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
As with far too many so-called terrorism plots against America in the decade following 9/11, the Newburgh/Bronx plot was manufactured and sponsored by the FBI through one of its thousands of paid informants utilized during that era to frame gullible Muslims, and others ensnared in “fake” plots.
The FBI planted these informants—most of whom were cooperating with the agency to avoid criminal prosecution—in Muslim communities throughout the United States to find and create domestic terrorism plots.
Once local FBI agents realized that the Muslim communities were not hotbeds of real, ongoing terrorism, they instructed their criminal-minded informants to scrounge around for any potential terrorists from which an actual plot could be manufactured.
That is what happened in the Newburgh Four case.
In 2003, a Pakistani national named Shahed Hussain was convicted of criminal fraud. Facing deportation back to his native country, Hussain became an informant for the FBI against another individual. Satisfied with his snitching ability, the FBI added Hussain to its paid informant rolls in 2007. They assigned him to work in the lower Hudson Valley area with the singular instruction to seek out and cultivate “disaffected Muslims” who may have had real or imagined grievances against the United States. Hussain later became infamous as the owner of a down-market limousine company that rented a defective vehicle to a group of partygoers in 2018, leading to 20 deaths. He received 15 years in prison for 20 counts of manslaughter for his role in the tragic offense.
The design of FBI’s anti-terrorism program was clear: there had to be terrorists somewhere in the Muslim communities because the agency had equated terrorism with Islam, as had most Americans in that era. When legitimate investigations failed to produce the perceived terrorists, the FBI shifted its legitimate focus to the unsavory and often criminal tactic of manufacturing Muslim-inspired domestic terrorism through its paid informants.
And that is precisely what happened in the Newburgh Four case.
By June 2008, Hussain had wormed his way into a local Newburgh mosque at the instruction of his FBI handlers. The agency gave Hussain enough money to pass himself off as a successful Pakistani businessman. They gave him a nice house and car wired for video and audio surveillance.
The FBI plan showed promise that summer when, according to Hussain, the informant was approached by James Cromitie, who identified himself as Abdul Rahman. Cromitie claimed Afghani origins.
During a drive in Hussain’s vehicle from the mosque to Cromitie’s residence, the petty drug thief told the informant that he wanted to do something against the U.S. for its presence in Afghanistan—something that would make him a martyr and allow him to “go to paradise.”
At that point, Hussain opened the terrorism dialogue by telling Cromitie that military planes frequently flew out of Stewart Airfield loaded with arms and ammunition for delivery to Afghanistan to be used against the Taliban insurgency.
Over the rest of the 2008 summer, Hussain continued to gin up Cromitie, who repeatedly expressed hatred for Jews and Americans and leveled more than 700 threats against the life of the President of the United States. While this may be vile and scary speech, it is protected under the Constitution, just as the speech of far-right white supremacists, which has been left to fester in the country, with little law enforcement attention.
Per the instructions of the FBI, Hussain, in July 2008, planted the seed in Cromitie’s marginalized brain that he had terrorist connections in Pakistan. At Hussain’s invitation, Cromitie said he would love to join forces with the Pakistani terrorists.
Between October and November 2008, Hussain recorded four conversations he had with Cromitie, during which the petty drug thief:
- Continued to express his hatred of Jews;
- Stated that American Muslims should engage in attacks against the U.S.;
- Stated that he and “his team” wanted to attack the George Washington Bridge;
- Stated that he was ready to accept Hussain’s “guns and missiles;”
- Stated that he was prepared to start a jihad against America with an attack on Stewart Airfield;
- He and Hussain took surveillance photos of Stewart Airfield;
- Discussed plans with Hussain about attacks on synagogues in the Bronx; and
- Stated that he would need at least $25,000 for other members of his team.
Between February and April of 2009, Hussain escalated the plot with talk of making $250,000 for Cromitie, who then brought David Williams into direct contact with Hussain to discuss the facets of the planned attacks. Cromitie and Williams brought Onta Williams and Laquerre Payen into the FBI-inspired plot. All four men discussed the suggested missile attack on Stewart Airfield and the bombing attacks on the Bronx synagogues. Each was looking at the $250,000 payout.
All four men would either purchase or attempt to steal guns for use in the attacks in 2009.
The FBI did its part as well, building a Hollywood inspired terrorist set. The agency rented a warehouse storing fake bombs and Stinger missiles inside.
On May 6, 2009, Hussain escorted Cromitie, David Williams, and Payen to the warehouse located in Stamford, Connecticut. The four men then loaded the bombs and missiles into the trunk of Hussain’s FBI-purchased vehicle and drove them to a storage facility rented by Hussain in New Windsor, New York.
Between May 13 and May 19, Hussain escorted the four men in the FBI-purchased vehicle on surveillance trips to the Stewart Airfield and the Bronx synagogues.
On May 20, Hussain drove the four men to the New Windsor storage facility where they picked up the fake bombs and Stinger missiles. Hussain took the men to Riverdale, a community in the Bronx, where he let the Williams and Payen out of the car to serve as lookouts near the Riverdale Temple Synagogue. Cromitie then got out of the car and planted one of the fake bombs in the trunk of a Pontiac parked directly in front of the synagogue and the two other fake bombs on the backseat of a nearby Mazda outside a community center.
Both vehicles had been planted there by the FBI as part of Hussain’s orchestrated plan to blow up the Temple Synagogue.
The FBI trap closed immediately with the arrests of all four men.
The Newburgh Four case immediately began to be shrouded by charges of FBI entrapment, outrageous government conduct in both the investigation and prosecution of the case and the use of perjured testimony to secure convictions against the four men.
The government nonetheless obtained its conviction in the Newburgh Four case in October 2010. U.S. District Court Judge Colleen McMahon, who presided over the trial of the four men, sentenced them to mandatory 25-year minimum sentences in June 2011.
Judge McMahon has never been satisfied with the way the government investigated and prosecuted the Newburgh Four case. She believed that the four men were petty, hapless, penurious criminals lured into an FBI-orchestrated conspiracy with the help of a criminally cunning informant who bedazzled the men in the conspiracy with the lure of a $250,000 prize,
On July 27, 2023, Judge McMahon took action to alleviate some of the injustice inflicted on three of the four Newburgh Four. The Judge ordered that David Williams, Onta Williams, and Laquerre Payen be released from prison in 90 days under a federal “compassionate release” program. The Judge based her decision on the premise that the sentences imposed on the men were “unduly harsh and unjust.”
Judge McMahon characterized Hussain as the lead conspirator in the FBI-created plot—not the four petty criminals. She conceded that the men’s decision to participate in the plot was “heinous” but that the sentences imposed on them were “the product of a fictitious plot to do things that these men had never remotely contemplated, and that were never going to happen.”
She called Hussain the real “villain” in the case—an unscrupulous man with a criminal history before and after the Newburgh Four case. “A person reading the crimes of conviction in this case would be left with the impression that the offending defendants were sophisticated international terrorists committed to jihad against the United States,” Judge McMahon wrote. “However, they were, in actual reality, hapless, easily manipulated and penurious petty criminals…The three men were recruited so that Cromitie could conspire with someone,” she wrote. “The real lead conspirator was the United States.” The Judge also “suggested that the government had undermined “respect for the law” by sending “a villain like Hussain to troll among the poorest and weakest of men” with “an offer of much-needed cash in exchange for committing a faux crime.”
As Gary Larkin of the Riverside Press reported, even local Jewish leaders agreed with the Judge’s conclusion. Rabbi Thomas Gardner of Riverdale Temple, one of the synagogues targeted in the plot, said that he was nervous when he first heard the news “until he realized they weren’t terrorists seeking to attack Jews…The guys were small-time crooks who were talked into making some money,…It was really something where the government entrapped them. I am glad they are out. I’m sure they suffered enough.”
James Cromitie’s attorney said his client will probably seek the same “compassionate release” received by his co-defendants. His scheduled release from federal prison is in 2030.
We find it strangely interesting how right-wing Republican lawmakers are currently clamoring for an end to the FBI and Justice Department for weaponizing those agencies against their criminally indicted political leaders but were silent during the post-9/11 era when the agencies were targeting the nation’s Muslim communities with fabricated terrorism plots. When this weaponization was targeted against “the other,” they considered the “weaponization” of the agencies as “excellent law enforcement.” It should never be acceptable for law enforcement to get caught up in politics and search for increased funding by creating crime and feeding into the fear of the public.