Four men suspected of terrorist activities. Four men arrested, caught in the very act.
On the surface, it seemed like a seamless maneuver, a textbook exercise in counterterrorism that nabbed four Newburghß, N.Y. men suspected of plotting to blow up two synagogues in the Riverdale section of the Bronx and shoot down military planes.
But the elaborate two-year sting operation that resulted in the May 20 arrests has exposed cracks in the layered and sometimes complicated relationship between mosques and law enforcement.
Muslims and Jews, law enforcement officials and lobbyists — everyone you ask is thrilled that the Riverdale plot was thwarted. The division, and it is a stark one, comes when the questions turn to FBI informants.
“It makes it more challenging,” said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “It’s testing the confidence in the system.”
Men such as Shahed Hussain, the FBI informant alleged to have brought together and helped finance the Newburgh foursome, straddle a blurry moral terrain, Al-Marayati said. Do informants report terrorist plots, or do they help manufacture them?
Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of the Riverdale Jewish Center, one of the targeted synagogues, said it’s clear the four men involved wished to commit serious harm against Jews — with or without an FBI informant.
“Whether the FBI… closed the gap between ‘eptitude’ and ineptitude, I still don’t believe the FBI fanned any flames in terms of hatred, in terms of enthusiasm, in terms of aspiration,” he said. “It is clear that the aspiration to do harm and the commitment to fulfill that aspiration runs like a dark thread through this entire thing, and that’s not the FBI.”
And for critics who view Islamic extremism in the United States as a widespread threat, like Steven Emerson, executive director of The Investigative Project on Terrorism, Al-Marayati’s question isn’t even worth asking. Mosques, he says, are simply subject to greater scrutiny.
“It is their national patriotic duty to inform law enforcement, not to condemn law enforcement for using informants,” Emerson said. “I think they have it mixed up.”
But some Muslim leaders contend that law enforcement sometimes crosses the line by taking an active role in the development of these homegrown terror plots.
In this case, Hussain, originally from Pakistan, was recruited by the FBI as an informant in 2002, when he was arrested on federal charges of identity theft and got off with five years’ probation. Attendees at the Masjid al-Ikhlas mosque told reporters that Hussain would show up in a Mercedes or expensive Hummer and invite other worshippers to meals, where he spoke of violence and jihad. The mosque’s imam, Salahuddin Mustafa Muhammad, said one mosque member said members of his congregation told him Hussain offered at least one of them a substantial amount of money to join his “team.” Muhammad and other mosque members thought he was an informant.
The imam told The New York Times that none of the suspects — all previously convicted felons — were active there. An assistant imam, Hamin Rashada, said that two of them, James Cromitie and Laguerre Payen, occasionally attended services. And in court, Payen’s attorney reported that his client was on medication for schizophrenia and “intellectually challenged.” Another suspect, Onta Williams, was a crack addict. It was not clear that any but Cromitie was actually Muslim.
Nevertheless, the prosecutors’ complaint stresses that taped conversations between Hussain and the suspects showed that all four were active and willing participants in a plot the group developed to obtain weapons to bomb the two Riverdale synagogues and stinger missiles to shoot down a military aircraft.
But others are more skeptical.
“These plots are being used to drive funding for the war on terrorism,” said Adem Carroll, executive director of the Muslim Consultative Network, an advocacy organization out of New York. He termed the case one of “radicalization by informant.”
“While funding may or may not be needed… it is not fair that it is done sort of on the backs of the Muslim community, depicting us as a terror threat,” Carroll said.
But for Emerson, mosques under investigation are no different from other groups involved in intelligence operations.
“If the community itself would be more forthcoming… there wouldn’t be a need for informants,” he said. “It’s a necessary, vital tool of law enforcement.”
If he received word that his congregants wished to commit harm against Muslims, Rosenblatt said, he would welcome an investigation.
“The nightmare of having that poison come from my synagogue far outstrips anything I could possibly resent in terms of having a foreign presence in my synagogue,” he said.
But Muslims haven’t been given an opportunity to engage, Carroll countered. Al-Marayati added that Muslims are looking for more dialogue, more discussion and more clarification from law enforcement and Jewish groups.
“This is something that Muslims are prepared to work together with the Jewish community on if we feel there’s some kind of inclusion,” Carroll said. “We just haven’t been given the opportunity to engage on the level that’s needed.”
FBI tactics such as those news reports suggest were used to thwart the Riverdale plot to make everyone’s work more difficult, he contended.
Carroll warned that they could lead radical elements within the Muslim community to burrow further underground.
“It does certainly discourage open dialogue,” he said. “It makes the work of maintaining the peace harder, from our point of view.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier, president and co-founder of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a group that promotes interfaith dialogue, found Muslim anger over the tactics understandable. All ethnic groups go through a stage where they feel unfairly targeted by law enforcement agencies, but it’s all part of moving into mainstream American culture, he said.
“Once you then have the trust between that particular community and law enforcement officials, that has a way of lowering the temperature,” Schneier said. “There needs to be a greater degree of trust and sensitivity on [Muslims’] part to the role that law enforcement officials are now playing with all religious institutions.”
Jews, meanwhile, have the responsibility to recognize that Muslim leaders have frequently, and boisterously, condemned terrorism, Schneier said. That knowledge, he said, must be channeled into a partnership against the growth of extremism.
“The more the Jewish community can publicly demonstrate and acknowledge that Muslims are part and parcel of the American social fabric… that will go a long way to building these bonds of trust and friendship,” he said.
The FBI was unavailable for comment at press time.
Contact Alex Weisler at email@example.com.
Alex Weisler, a former journalist and Forward Fellow, is the digital content guru at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).