NEWBURGH, N.Y. – “I am very concerned that the hard work of building bridges here in Newburgh over the last quarter of a century will now be dismissed, because of the actions of a convicted felon,” said Imam Salahuddin Muhammad, who heads Masjid al-Ikhlas, in this city of 28,000 some 60 miles from Manhattan.
The “felon” referred to is an FBI informant connected to the May 20 arrest of four Black men from Newburgh. The men are accused of plotting to use explosives to blow up synagogues and use a rocket launcher to shoot down a military aircraft. Federal officials and New York’s police chief said the men are former prison inmates who met at Imam Muhammad’s mosque, wanted to do violence against Jews, and strike a blow on behalf of suffering Muslims. But in interviews, residents and community leaders expressed doubt about the charges and said the men, including a Haitian immigrant with a mental illness, were set-up and likely sucked in by offers of a chance to make money.
Although members of various religious communities, politicians and activists gathered at the mosque for a press conference two days after the arrests–which garnered major news coverage–to show support for the Muslim community, Imam Muhammad believes irreparable harm has come to the reputation of the mosque and its members.
“They are making me out to be a teacher of hate, and I am hurt by that, and it has hurt my family,” he told The Final Call in a May 24 telephone interview.
Others fear the high profile case and the role played by the informant, who was apparently involved in other sting operations, is another sign of the targeting of Islamic communities and Muslims that is troubling and needs to end.
Conspirators or fall guys?
The FBI complaint filed in the Southern District of New York charged the four men with conspiracy to use “weapons of mass destruction.” The FBI said the men allegedly plotted to bomb synagogues in the Bronx using cars packed with C-4 explosives and blow up a plane at the Stewart Air National Guard Base using a stinger missile, planning the events at the al-Ikhlas mosque. Mosque officials say no planning happened at their house of worship.
The imam believes a Middle Eastern man, who was made to feel uncomfortable enough that he stopped coming to the mosque, is the FBI informant identified in varied news reports as Shahed Hussain, a Pakistani.
Imam Muhammad believes the visitor to his mosque “drove” the four men to “do this thing.” The men were also not regular attendees, while some regular worshipers were wary of the visitor and suspected he was a government agent. Some elders at the mosque expressed concern about this man who spoke of jihad and flashed cash, Imam Muhammad continued.
In hindsight, “maybe I should have reported this man to the government. But, he was made to feel unwelcome at the mosque,” the imam said. Unwelcome inside, the man would wait in his black Mercedes in the parking lot and approach younger Black visitors. James Cromitie, 44, Laguerre Payen, 27, David Williams, 28, and Onta Williams, 32, came into contact with the visitor, met with him outside of the mosque and, law enforcement officials said, the informant provided the fake explosives and the inoperable missile launcher reportedly found in their possession when police officers and federal agents rammed their vehicle and arrested them.
NYPD Police Commissioner Raymond Kelley has continued to tell the media the men were acquainted with each other through prison contacts and the terrorism allegations have prompted speculation about homegrown terrorists inside correctional institutions.
Imam Muhammad rejects talk of prison facilities as hotbeds of radical Islamic activity as false. “I am a product of the great work being carried out in the prisons by Muslim chaplains,” he stressed. “I earned a Master’s degree during my stay in prison; and in 1985 I became a chaplain. I turned my life around, and I have never looked back,” the imam said. “We teach young men to lead productive lives–not to continue their criminal ways; nor to harbor hatred towards anyone.”
Family members and acquaintances of the accused men also denied hearing expressions of hatred or radical thought.
“Our family is in shock,” said Moleik Murphy, the stepbrother of David Williams. “I saw him, maybe in March; and he seemed like he was getting himself together, lifting weights and all. We only talked for a hot minute.”
Mr. Murphy said his stepbrother never talked about politics and was never known to espouse any militant philosophy.
Bishop J.C. Woody, pastor of the House of Refuge church, told The Final Call Mr. Williams was a member of his Star Academy program for students at risk some 10 years ago. “He was like so many of our young men who have trouble staying focused,” Bishop Woody noted. “No doubt in my mind that these four young men were entrapped.”
Haitian immigrant Laguerre Payen was homeless when an assistant imam helped him find shelter. Mr. Payen also suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, was unkempt and kept bottles of urine in his room, according to press reports.
Irma Amos, a lifelong resident of Newburgh said she knew Mr. Cromitie, and that he was “a very nice guy.”
“Folks want to know where he got the money to carry out the alleged bomb plot,” Ms. Amos told The Final Call.
The FBI supplied the suspected informant with the money for the men to buy the phony explosives and the missile system. Imam Muhammad told reporters the man, according to the elders in the mosque, may have had $25,000 at his disposal. The man had offered some worshippers money to join him, he said.
Black suffering, not terror, is the problem, residents say
Larry Williams, 57, who has lived in Newburgh for the past 40 years, said the problem is the lack of jobs for Black men–not terrorism. “We also need funds for a community center for the youth, because we have too many killings and a lot of drugs on the street,” he added.
“Black people in Newburgh have been victimized by the terrorism perpetrated on them by the system,” declared Natasha Cotton, 40, who became an activist 10 years ago. “I saw Onta Williams about a week ago, he was working out; and talking positive,” she recalled.
“We need financial support for programs for brothers like Onta from the city and the corporations. This terrorist story is going to stop a lot of movement that had already begun to turn our community around,” Ms. Cotton said.
“We are the majority in this city and we continue to elect a mayor and a city council that won’t send funds to the Black community so that we can help get our people such as the four brothers they arrested back on their feet. They are behind the eight-ball because they all have records, and have served time,” said barber Brother Stone.
“People keep complaining that they have been let down by the politicians, but have not come together to do something about it,” he told The Final Call.
According to Census figures, Newburgh’s total population is 28,201–with Latinos 36 percent of the population, Blacks 33 percent of residents and Whites represent 28 percent of the city. The median household income is $38,324, with 25.8 percent of the population below the poverty line. Unemployment as of December 2008 was officially 5.8 percent.
Across the street from the barbershop, Mayor Nicholas Valentine, 58, operates the Broadway Tailors, a tuxedo rental and tailoring business. The mayor, who is White, told The Final Call he wasn’t concerned about negative publicity generated by the arrests. “I am concerned how people could be hiding below the radar, choosing not to be seen for what they really are,” he said.
A group of men, all in their 50s, talked about “old times” at the corner of South and Chambers in Newburgh. They were skeptical about the alleged terror plot, but talked about the decline of the Black community started in the 1960s and has continued. Drugs, crime and prison are not uncommon, they added.
“Those four guys they arrested never had a chance to get on the right track. There are no decent jobs here for them; and once you go to prison that’s that,” said one man.
Plotting a crime or ‘television drama?’
Shahed Hussain, the man the government allegedly used to snare the Newburgh 4, was recruited by the feds after pleading guilty in April 2003 for scheming to get driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. He is believed to have become an FBI informant in 2002 to avoid deportation to Pakistan after being arrested on fraud charges. Many are skeptical of his role and have ridiculed the idea that the so-called plot was serious, but express concern that the government set-up a scenario and sought “dimwits” to fit its scheme.
“The real question, which certainly will not be addressed in this case, is but for the snitch, would these guys ever have done anything besides talk about stuff?” activist attorney Ron Kuby recently noted on his Air America radio show. He also explained why the FBI allowed the so-called Newburgh terrorist plot to go on for a year: “There are two reasons–the closer it is to completion, the harder it is for defense lawyers like me to claim that these guys were just shooting the breeze. And the longer you let it go, the better the visuals–the actual (bogus) bombs being driven to the real synagogue that could have really been blown up if any of this was real. But, it isn’t. It’s a made for television drama.”
“Without the assistance of the agent who entrapped them, they would never have dreamed of committing political violence, nor would they have had the slightest idea about where to acquire plastic explosives or a Stinger missile. That didn’t stop prosecutors from acting as if they’d captured Osama bin Laden himself,” wrote Richard Dreyfuss, for The Nation magazine.
“Despite the pompous statements from Mayor Bloomberg of New York and other politicians, including Representative Peter King, the whole story is bogus. The four losers may have been inclined to violence, and they may have harbored a virulent strain of anti-Semitism. But it seems that the informant whipped up their violent tendencies and their hatred of Jews, cooked up the plot, incited them, arranged their purchase of weapons, and then had them busted. … It is disgusting and outrageous that the FBI is sending provocateurs into mosques,” he added.
In 1984, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights stated in a report that, “Because (federal) agents create crime, rather than merely detect it, they hold the power to create the appearance of guilt; and many of the values reflected in our Constitution are directly threatened by these operations.”
Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid, of the Harlem-based Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood Inc., and the Muslim Alliance of America, spoke strongly in remarks at a May 21 press conference at the Riverdale Jewish Center, one of the alleged bombing targets. The press conference was held to condemn violence and promote religious understanding. While the imam supported the sentiment of faith communities coming together and condemnation of attacks, he added: “We want to make sure there are no recriminations against the Muslim community because of the alleged terrorist plot. We are against being probed, against having our houses of worship surveilled. And we are against the use of our weak-minded for these set-up operations.”