When the 18-wheel police truck pulled across the street in front of them and cops from the New York City Police Department's Emergency Service Unit wearing full battle gear started smashing in the smoked-glass windows of their SUV on Wednesday night, the four men who allegedly conspired to bomb Bronx, N.Y., synagogues must have known they'd been had. Perhaps the most intriguing question in this latest homegrown terrorist plot to be busted up by the Federal Bureau of Investigation is how these characters could have been so stupid to begin with. The record of Al Qaeda is fearsome, of course. But the record of Al Qaeda wannabes in the United States has followed the same pattern repeatedly, whether they plotted to blow up New York City's Herald Square subway station in 2004, or shoot troops at New Jersey's Fort Dix or incinerate John F. Kennedy Airport, both in 2007.
These clumsy conspirators have seen their plots penetrated early on by undercover police or government informants. As the plotters fulminate against the United States and dream of reaching Paradise through martyrdom, the informants are there, it would seem, to help them on their way.
According to New York City Police Department sources interviewed over the past two years for my recent book "Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force - the NYPD," there are several basic reasons these cases are publicized. The obvious ones are that the alleged terrorists are breaking the law, and even if they are inept they might succeed in hurting people. Another is to heighten public awareness that a terrorist threat continues. In many cases the NYPD chooses not to prosecute, preferring to disrupt plots and recruit new sources of intelligence. And the public revelation of a case like this also has a useful psychological message: if you are three or four guys conspiring to carry out terrorist acts in the New York area, one of you is likely to be an informant.
In this instance, according to the FBI complaint against the four arrested on Wednesday, a "cooperating witness" or "CW" who has been working with the Feds for six years made contact with the alleged conspirators at the Al-Ikhlas mosque in Newburgh, N.Y., about 70 miles north of New York City, in June 2008. Someone in the local community had tipped off the authorities, and the CW, according to the complaint, found that James Cromitie, a Muslim convert who called himself Abdul Rahman, was infuriated because American troops were killing people in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Cromitie allegedly said he wanted to do "something to America." And he drew three others into the plot.
The CW offered to put him in touch with Jaish-e-Mohammed, a terrorist organization in Pakistan that is focused on the battle against India for Kashmir. Cromitie said he wanted to join the group to "do jihad," according to the complaint.
In the year since then, as conversations were recorded and eventually captured on video, the group thought it was getting C4 plastic explosives from the CW to attack synagogues in the Bronx that apparently were spotted by Cromitie while driving from Newburgh down to Brooklyn, where he was raised. They also thought the CW had helped them obtain a Stinger shoulder-launched antiaircraft missile, with which to shoot down a plane above an Air National Guard base near Newburgh. The explosives and the missile were fake. But at least one 9mm pistol bought by the group was real enough, according to a knowledgeable police source who did not want to be named discussing an ongoing investigation.
As Cromitie and his cronies allegedly imagined their act of terrorism, they were going to blow up the plane, and then call the numbers of cellphones used as trigger devices on the bombs placed near the two synagogues, according to the charges.
But the 18-wheeler showed up instead.