Four men due in court Thursday to face charges of plotting to bomb Jewish sites and shoot down military planes were arrested after planting what they thought were explosive devices near a synagogue and community center, authorities say.
Officials told The Associated Press the arrests came after a nearly yearlong undercover operation that began in Newburgh, N.Y., about 70 miles north of New York City.
James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen, all of Newburgh, were charged with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction within the United States and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles, the U.S. attorney’s office said.
Three of the defendants are U.S. citizens and one is of Haitian descent, officials said.
The men had planned to detonate a car with plastic explosives outside a temple in the Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale and to shoot military planes at the New York Air National Guard base at Stewart Airport in Newburgh with Stinger surface-to-air guided missiles, authorities said.
The defendants planned to "destroy a synagogue and a Jewish community center with C-4 plastic explosives," Acting U.S. Attorney Lev L. Dassin said.
The religious targets were the Riverdale Temple, founded in 1947, and the Riverdale Jewish Center, authorities said.
The New York City police commissioner says four men wanted to commit jihad when they plotted to bomb a Jewish temple and shoot down military planes in upstate New York.
At a news conference outside the Bronx temple Thursday, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly quoted one of the men as saying, "If Jews were killed in this attack … that would be all right."
However, Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned against stereotypes. He stressed that the Riverdale Temple is open to people of all faiths, including a Muslim girl who sometimes prays there.
The city leaders met privately with congregants Thursday morning. Kelly said the neighborhood security was heightened to improve residents’ comfort level.
The defendants are due in federal court Thursday in White Plains.
"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," New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement. The mayor is expected to appear at Riverdale Jewish Center morning services with Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
The defendants, in their efforts to acquire weapons, dealt with an informant acting under law enforcement supervision, authorities said. The FBI and other agencies monitored the men and provided an inactive missile and inert C-4 to the informant for the defendants, a federal complaint said.
In June 2008, the informant met Cromitie in Newburgh and Cromitie complained that his parents had lived in Afghanistan and 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," they said in 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 synagogue and the community center they intended to hit, it said. They also conducted surveillance of military planes at the Air National Guard Base, it said.
The suspects were arrested Wednesday night, shortly after planting a mock explosive device in the trunk of a car outside the Riverdale Temple and two mock bombs in the backseat of a car outside the Jewish Center, authorities said.
Rep. Peter King, the senior Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, was briefed on the case following the arrests.
"This was a long, well-planned investigation, and it shows how real the threat is from homegrown terrorists," said King, of New York.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said if there can be any good news out of this case it’s that "the group was relatively unsophisticated, penetrated early and not connected to any outside group."
"The shocking plan to blow up a Jewish house of prayer with what the jihadist terrorists thought were C-4 explosives is dramatic proof that the dangers from such fanaticism have not passed and that American Jews must maintain their vigilance," said a statement released by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights group.
The defendants were jailed Wednesday night and couldn’t be contacted for comment. The FBI didn’t immediately return a telephone message seeking information on whether the men had lawyers.