The upstate limo accident that killed 20 people this weekend—the deadliest transportation accident in the United States since a 2009 plane crash—has generated outpourings of sympathy. It has prompted Gov. Cuomo to order flags to half-staff. It has prompted questions about whether the limousine industry could use additional regulation. And it has triggered references to an otherwise forgotten case of alleged terrorism that had two targets in the Bronx.
Published reports indicate the owner of the limousine company was Shahed Hussain, and that he’d been a key FBI informant in at least two terrorism cases—after pleading guilty himself to a federal fraud charge related to helping immigrants cheat their way to getting drivers’ licenses.
One of those cases was the case of the Newburgh Four. That group of four men—James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen—was arrested in 2009 for planning to blow up a synagogue and Jewish community center in the Bronx and to shoot down military aircraft at Stewart Air Force Base. They were convicted in 2010 and sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.
At the time of the arrests, leaders seized on the story as justification for their counter-terrorism policies. “This latest attempt to attack our freedoms shows that the homeland security threats against New York City are sadly all too real and underscores why we must remain vigilant in our efforts to prevent terrorism,” was the response from Mayor Bloomberg, whose administration sent detectives to catalog mosques and Middle Eastern restaurants, surveiled Muslim student activists in other states and crafted an academic rationale for the profiling of Muslims.
But there was less to the Newburgh Four case than the initial reports (the Associated Press indicated the men were “bent on carrying out a holy war against America”) indicated—because there was more Shahed Hussain to the case than the government at first let on.
The judge in the case, District Judge Colleen McMahon, detailed Hussain’s involvement in a post-trial ruling issued in 2011:
The government indisputably ‘manufactured’ the crimes of which defendants stand convicted. The government invented all of the details of the scheme – many of them, such as the trip to Connecticut and the inclusion of Stewart AFB as a target, for specific legal purposes of which the defendants could not possibly have been aware (the former gave rise to federal jurisdiction and the latter mandated a twenty-five year minimum sentence). The government selected the targets. The government designed and built the phony ordnance that the defendants planted (or planned to plant) at government-selected targets. The government provided every item used in the plot: cameras, cell phones, cars, maps and even a gun. The government did all the driving (as none of the defendants had a car or a driver’s license). The government funded the entire project. And the government, through its agent, offered the defendants large sums of money, contingent on their participation in the heinous scheme.
McMahon also alluded to the critical role played by Hussain.
Additionally, before deciding that the defendants (particularly Cromitie, who was in their sights for nine months) presented any real danger, the government appears to have done minimal due diligence, relying instead on reports from its confidential information, who passed on information about Cromitie—information that could easily have been verified (or not verified, since much of it was untrue), but that no one thought it necessary to check before offering a jihadist opportunity to a man who had no contact with any extremist groups and no history of anything other than drug crimes.
McMahon also noted that, “in structuring the crime, the government saw fit to create roles for persons other than Cromitie – who at least had uttered malicious and threatening statements about Jews and the United States – and to offer those roles to individuals who had no history of terrorist leanings.”
Although she expressed deep reservations about the case even at the sentencing of the men—”I’m not proud of my government for what it did in this case,” she said—McMahon ruled the government’s conduct did not rise to the level of entrapment. But that ruling was partly based on the fact that the FBI relied upon the claims of its informant, Hussain, about initial contacts between him and Cromitie before the government began taping their encounters.
As McMahon’s ruling details, Cromitie expressed hate for Jews and anger over U.S. treatment of Muslims, and expressed interest in violence at some points, but also stepped away from those statements at times and showed reluctance to participate.
In the end, of course, he and his co-conspirators obtained the fake weapons, cased their targets and moved ahead with what they thought was going to be a horrible crime. That’s likely why the defendants’ appeal was rejected in 2013.
Separate suits by Cromitie, who claimed he’d received ineffective assistance of counsel because his mental health had never been adequately assessed, and Onta Williams, who contended he was profiled for being a Muslim, also have not had success. Payen filed a suit alleging mistreatment in prison. In a sad indication of his sense of the world, the relief he asked for included “to see my son” and “3 trillion.”
The Newburgh case was the subject of a documentary, “The Newburgh Sting,” released four years ago. But it has otherwise faded in with a blur of other questionable prosecutions from that era, including that of the Shahawar Matin Siraj, whom an informant helped develop the so-called Herald Square bomb plot, and Syed Hashmi, the Queens man convicted of material support to al Qaeda partly on secret evidence and the word of another informant.
Whatever the role of the limo company in the Schoharie tragedy, and whatever Hussain’s role in the company, the events of 2018 don’t retroactively undermine the Newburgh Four case, such as it was. They do raise the uncomfortable question of whether Cromitie, Payen, Williams and Williams—now doing time at the federal prisons at Allenwood, Leavenworth, Loretto or Springfield and due out between August 2030 and January 2032—were ever going to hurt anywhere near as many people as died at the intersection of Route 30 and Route 30A.
I asked Sam Braverman, one of the lawyers for Payen, if the Newburgh case had set a precedent for terrorism cases, and if so, what it was.
“I think the only take away is that in the end, law enforcement believes that this was a successful prosecution, and something to be imitated. The conviction was sustained at every level on appeal, and whatever reservations anybody may have had about the tactics, society has approved at these tactics and uses them repeatedly,” he emailed. “The people who are most opposed to these types of tactics have been unable to persuade law enforcement or society over the years that the entrapment of poor disenfranchised young men is no way to protect society.”