Informant takes witness at trial of 4 accused of plotting to blow up NY synagogues

Friday, August 27, 2010

Informant takes stand in NY temple plot case

NEW YORK — The government’s star witness against four men charged with trying to blow up New York synagogues and shoot down military planes told a jury Friday that one defendant told him that he hated Jews and Americans and that he wanted to be a martyr and “do something to America.”

Shahed Hussain said he was standing by his car outside a Newburgh, N.Y., mosque in June 2008 when he was approached by James Cromitie, the alleged ringleader of the plot that was doomed from the start because an important facilitator — Hussain — was working for the FBI all along.

The government alleges Cromitie — with Hussain playing “terrorist facilitator” — hatched a plot involving the other men to blow up two synagogues in the Bronx with remote-control bombs. They also wanted to use surface-to-air missiles to shoot down planes at the Air National Guard base in Newburgh.

The men obtained what they thought were explosives and a missile system but were actually inert devices supplied by the FBI, prosecutors said. They were arrested on May 20, 2009, when they went to the synagogues to plant the fake bombs.

Hussain said Cromitie chatted with him for a half-hour in the mosque parking lot before he drove him to a gas station in his BMW to talk for another half-hour. He said he had become a regular visitor to the mosque, to which he drove fancy cars and where he wore designer clothing and posed as wealthy because “in any mosque nobody wants to talk to a poor guy.”

Hussain, a 53-year-old Pakistani immigrant, testified for more than an hour Friday, telling how Cromitie told him he had committed “a lot of sins” in his life and wanted to find redemption in a spectacular death.

“I want to go to paradise,” Hussain quoted Cromitie as saying. He said Cromitie told him: “I want to do something to America.”

Hussain recalled that at a second meeting 10 days later at a home the FBI had rented, Cromitie spewed hate after talking about Islam and his personal life.

“He hated Jews and Jewish people and he hated the American people, American soldiers,” Hussain said. “He was full of hate on those subjects. He said he would kill the president 700 times because he’s the Antichrist.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Raskin asked him whether the U.S. president at the time was George W. Bush, and Hussain said it was.

At a third meeting 10 days later, Hussain said he told Cromitie that he was going to a conference in Pakistan staged by a terrorist organization there and that Cromitie expressed an eagerness to go and to join the group.

“I told him I’d let him know. He said, ‘Give me a call, I’ll take one piece of cloth and fly with you,” Hussain recalled, though he corrected himself to say Cromitie had actually promised to bring “one piece of clothing.”

The trial began Monday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan for Cromitie, 43, and three men recruited as lookouts — Onta Williams, 34; David Williams, 29; and Laguerre Payen, 28. They are charged with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles to kill U.S. officers and employees.

Wearing a wire, Hussain helped the FBI make hundreds of hours of video and audio tapes of the defendants picking targets for jihad and ranting against Jews, prosecutors said in their opening statement.

In his opening statement, defense attorney Vincent Briccetti labeled Hussain “a master manipulator” who offered large sums of money and even a BMW to men who were uneducated and mostly unmotivated. He entrapped the men in “a phony plot that he certainly would not have joined otherwise,” Briccetti said.

Hussain opened his testimony by responding to Raskin’s questions about his past. Hussain and Cromitie looked at each other as Hussain identified the defendant for jurors. The day’s testimony ended just as the government prepared to play tapes of conversations between Hussain and Cromitie for the jury.

At one point, Hussain pulled back his shirt to expose a scar that resulted, he said, when Pakistani interrogators cut him during a torture session when he was falsely accused of murder in the early 1990s as they tried to get him to testify against government party opposition leaders.

After sneaking into the U.S. in Texas in December 1994 with a fake British passport with his wife and two sons, Hussain went to Albany, where he received asylum. In April 2003, he was working as a government translator when he pleaded guilty to a federal fraud charge for helping someone get their driver’s license illegally.

He earned a sentence that required no more jail time by working as an FBI informant. In January 2007, he met with the FBI in White Plains and won an extension of his green card status.

Hussain said his probe began with him frequenting three mosques, including the mosque in Newburgh, a city north of New York. He said he met nearly all of the 200 to 250 members of the mosque and talked to the FBI about 20 to 25 of them, usually after they expressed radical views.

Associated Press Writer Tom Hays contributed to this story.

(This version CORRECTS the story to change description of torture to Pakistani interrogators, instead of Pakistani government officials.)

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