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The Schmooze

When a Terrorist Is Not a Terrorist

Image courtesy of HBO

When is a terrorist not a terrorist?

That’s the question asked and answered in the important HBO documentary, “The Newburgh Sting,” which debuts July 21 at 9 p.m.

It’s been over five years. Still, many people are likely to remember how a joint terrorism task force arrested four men before they could bomb a Bronx synagogue and JCC, and fire a missile at military aircraft at Stewart Airport in upstate New York.

The government gratuitously went through the process of a trial, but the men, who became known as the Newburgh Four, had already been convicted in the media.

However, an investigation by filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner suggests that the four men were not terrorists, but dupes in an elaborate plot set up by an FBI informant.

Following 9/11 (which the FBI missed), the Bureau set up a network of informants to root out home grown terrorists. Most (if not all) of these informants were set loose on mosques. This certainly isn’t politically correct, and no U.S. mosque has yet ben implicated in any kind of terrorist plot. But the FBI seems to have adopted a “We screwed up and now we have to catch up” attitude that made its agents willing to overlook such niceties.“The rules are off,” was a common refrain in FBI offices.

Important, too, these undercover informants were financially rewarded. Previous criminal activity was overlooked. So, if they couldn’t find genuine terrorists, they were potentially motivated to create them, or else lose their jobs. And that seemed to be the case here.

Newburgh, 60 miles north of New York City, is an impoverished community. Shahed Hussain, an informant and shady character, visited the local mosque and asked the Imam if he knew anyone interested in Jihad.

The Imam suggested congregants stay away from him, but Hussain kept showing up in fancy suits, fancy cars (plural) and flashing wads of cash.

That attracted the attention James Cromitie, a poor, low-level drug dealer who worked nights at Walmart to make ends meet. Much of the documentary uses the FBI’s own surveillance footage, and it seems clear that Cromitie wasn’t so much interested in Jihad as in being close to someone with a lot of money.

It’s Hussain who suggests the Riverdale Temple as a likely target. Cromitie says: “I hate those bastards. No disrespect. Those f — king Jewish bastards.” But those comments come across less as anti-Semitism, than as the words of a man trying to ingratiate himself with his wealthy new buddy.

When it comes to actual terrorism though, Cromitie hems and haws — until Hussain offers him $250,000. Hussain urges Cromitie to find “good Muslim brothers” and hectors him to do so for months. When Cromitie goes off the grid for a while, Hussain keeps calling him.

Finally, Cromitie finds three other men — all motivated by money, not hatred. David Williams needs to help pay for a brother’s liver transplant surgery; Onta Williams (no relation to David) and Laguerre Payen also need cash. Payen is described as “intellectually challenged.”

Hussain supplies his quartet with material, shows them how to assemble and use it, and drives them around. None of the so-called terrorists have cars, and it is difficult if not impossible to carry out this kind of attack using public transit.

If fact, David Williams wants assurances from Hussain that no one will be hurt.

Yes, the four men were filmed carrying the so-called bombs to a car parked in front of the synagogue, but the terrorists (either accidentally or on purpose) didn’t switch the bombs on. So even if they were real — they were in fact inert — they would not have gone off.

But everything was carefully orchestrated. Riverdale is a wealthy, largely Jewish enclave, and terrorists captured there (just 10 to 15 miles north of the World Trade Center site) was sure to elicit the kind of headlines the FBI wanted. Moreover, 100 law enforcement officials swooped down on the quartet, including a bomb squad, presumable to defuse the inert bomb the FBI supplied.

It seems like something out of a Jimmy Breslin novel.

It’s hard to imagine that a jury saw this enterprise as anything other than entrapment. But the video seemed to override common sense. That the four were African American and had done some jail time probably did not help their cause.

What is more disturbing is that the conviction was not overturned on appeal. I can a see a jury falling for an FBI fabrication — that the bureau had penetrated an existing terror cell — but I should think appeals court judges could see through that.

The men were each sentenced to 25 years in prisons. Their lawyers are currently hoping the Supreme Court will hear their case.

Kudos to HBO for sharing (and financing) important films like these. “The Newburgh Sting” is like the canary in the mine shaft, warning of us of government overreach. Hopefully, the film will lead to a call for justice.

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