Published on Monday, December 12, 2011 by The Guardian/UK
Four: Poor, Black, and Jailed Under FBI 'Entrapment' Tactics Newburgh
In June, four men were jailed for 25 years over a
terror plot. The FBI painted them as dedicated fanatics, but were they lured by the promise of cash from a fake informant? US
by Paul Harris
Imam Salahuddin Muhammad could hardly miss Shahed Hussain when he first appeared three years ago at his mosque in the dilapidated town of
Hussain was flash, drove expensive cars and treated people to gifts of cash and food. He also had radical opinions that stood out in a mosque that welcomed Shia and Sunni followers and had good relations with local Jewish and Christian communities.
"This guy said women should not be heard, not be seen. I thought that was strange," Muhammad told the Guardian as he sat in his office inside
Hussain would make
Prosecutors painted them as America-hating terrorists bent on slaughter. All four followed the instructions of Hussain, who meticulously organized the scheme: from getting the missile and bombs, to reconnaissance missions, to teaching the tenets of radical Islam.
The "Newburgh Four" now languish in jail. Hussain does not. For Hussain was a fake. In fact, Hussain worked for the FBI as an informant trawling mosques in hope of picking up radicals.
Yet far from being active militants, the four men he attracted were impoverished individuals struggling with
Hussain offered the men huge financial inducements to carry out the plot – including $250,000 to one man – and free holidays and expensive cars.
As defence lawyers poured through the evidence, the Newburgh Four came to represent the most extreme form of a controversial FBI policy to use invented terrorist plots to lure targets. "There has been no case as egregious as this. It is unique in the incentive the government provided. A quarter million dollars?" said Professor Karen Greenberg, a terrorism expert at
Lawyers for the Newburgh Four have appealed. Their case will now be heard early next year. It is sure to prompt a re-examination of the way Hussain and the FBI invented a terrorist plot involving impoverished black Muslims in an economically deprived city.
The case will question the new ethos of the FBI, which, since the terror attacks of 9/11, has focused on pre-emptive prosecution. It also raises serious questions as to how the FBI has treated Muslim communities in
If the appeal fails, some believe the Newburgh Four case could end up at the Supreme Court. That won't be much comfort to
There is little doubt
It is this poverty-drenched environment in which Hussain met James Cromitie, a loudmouth Walmart worker who claimed to deal drugs and stolen goods. Exactly why Hussain picked
Now Hussain's brief was to fish for new suspects. He claimed to find one in Cromitie, who was prone to anti-Semitic rants. Hussain coaxed Cromitie along, eventually developing the plot to attack Riverdale and a
From then, the FBI prosecution seemed straightforward. After all, even though the plot was fake, the men seemed to think they were carrying out an Islamic terror attack. Prosecutors believed they were a real threat. But it is not that simple.
None of the four men fit the usual profile of a terrorist-in-waiting, let alone an active militant. But they did fit the profile of desperate men who would do anything for money – and Hussain promised massive earthly awards.
For Cromitie, he proffered $250,000: a staggering sum. Hussain also offered to buy him a new BMW, a holiday in
Both Williams men had done time in jail and were struggling. Onta Williams, the son of a crack addict mother, had started dealing drugs at 14. Meanwhile Payen, of Haitian origin, was possibly schizophrenic. He urinated in bottles in his bedroom and, when told of a trip to
In meetings discussing the plot, Payen said little; he just devoured the copious free food Hussain bought. It is not a portrait of radical Islamists. It is a sad picture of life in an urban ghetto.
Yet the FBI treated the gang, especially Cromitie, as dedicated fanatics. Cromitie certainly disliked Jews. "All the evil in this world is due to the Jews," Cromitie told Hussain. But Cromitie also told Hussain he believed President Bush was the anti-Christ and he wanted to kill him "700 times".
Cromitie falsely claimed to have visited
Cromitie seemed less a terrorist and more a blustering fantasist. Indeed, away from the company of Hussain, there is little sign Cromitie did anything for the plot. When Hussain gave him a camera and told Cromitie to reconnoitre targets, he promptly sold it.
He knew little about Islam; it was Hussain who tried to educate him about jihad. Hussain complained bitterly his pupil was doing nothing. "You've not started the first step, brother. Come on," Hussain griped on tape.
In fact, Cromitie tried to ditch Hussain. For weeks on end Cromitie pretended to leave
Only when Cromitie lost his job, and became desperate for money, did he contact Hussain again. "I told you, I can make you $250,000, but you don't want it, brother," Hussain told him.
Now Cromitie agreed and set about finding lookouts. "Ok, fuck it. I don't care. Ah, man. Maqsood, you got me," he said, using Hussain's fake name.
Even further into the plot – when Cromitie again told Hussain he did not think he could do it – Hussain said his overseas terrorist "brothers" might cut his head off. Cromitie came back on side.
The sheer scale and proactive nature of Hussain's actions has shocked legal experts, Muslim groups and civil rights organisations. They say it went far beyond a fair use of resources in neutralising a real threat. Not only was the entire plot fake, but it seemed only Hussain's Islamic coaching, talk of cash rewards and constant attention was keeping it alive.
But then Hussain was no normal informant. The entire FBI entrapment strategy in post-9/11
"He is a brilliant con man. He could con people about anything," said Steve Downs, a lawyer with Project Salam, which campaigns on entrapment cases.
At trial, Hussain's shocking past emerged. He claimed to have been arrested on murder charges in
He claimed to be poor, yet received mysterious sums of money from
He also claimed he never offered Cromitie a quarter of a million dollars, saying the phrase "$250,000" was a secret code name for the plot. Then he confessed he had not told either his FBI handlers or Cromitie of the code's existence; only he knew about it.
During the entire investigation, he earned $100,000 from the FBI in wages and expenses. In a tough economy, that is well-paid work for a convicted fraudster.
Yet Hussain was the sole personal witness for the FBI. His reports of what Cromitie had talked about were taken as truth, even though Hussain did not record the first four months of their meetings. And, once he began recording, the FBI unusually allowed him to switch the tape on and off. "They gave him a real long leash. He could do whatever he wanted," said
Therefore, there are large, unexplained gaps in the tapes, including the final minutes of the plot itself as the bombs were put in position. Hussain claimed - as he often did – that equipment malfunctioned at the vital moment.
Even Judge Colleen McMahon – who put the Newburgh Four behind bars – slammed the FBI. "Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr Cromitie, a man whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope," she said in court. She added: "I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it and brought it to fruition."
Those comments did not appease Alicia McWilliams, David Williams's aunt. "This was a movie script, written by the FBI," she fumed.
But it is hard to drum up support.
But what were the Newburgh Four thinking? In letters sent from jail, David Williams claimed they were intent on eventually robbing Hussain. Williams had a brother in need of a liver transplant and he said he wanted cash for that. It is a story McWilliams believes.
Muhammad also thinks it might be possible. "Maybe they thought they were playing Hussain for money. But they were the ones being played," the imam said. Others are not so sure.
Greenburg believes the men likely knew what they were doing, but were interested in cash, not religion. "From the evidence, they believed in the plot. But they didn't believe in jihad," she said. For prosecutors, that was enough to justify the whole scheme. "Ordinary people … would have known better. For Pete's sake, they would have called the cops when they heard there was a terrorist in town. These four men? They didn't give it a second thought," said prosecutor David Raskin in court.
However, that concept disturbs civil rights experts and legal figures, who dislike that FBI informants can offer money to people in return for committing crimes and then prosecute them. "I'm sure you could find hundreds of people, unfortunately, who would agree to commit very bad crimes for money," defence lawyer Mark Gombiner said.
Some say the FBI has now softened its tactics in the wake of the fallout from
But for now the Newburgh Four remain in jail. Their families desperately hope they will be successful in next year's appeal. And Hussain? With two successful cases behind him, he is an experienced FBI asset. He has now disappeared from those who knew him in
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs