New York plot shows 'bunches of guys' can become terrorists in post-9/11 world

Organized groups are still the main threat, but homegrown jihadists can be very dangerous, too.

Chip East/Reuters
Officers stand outside FBI offices before four suspects are walked out in New York May 21, 2009. Four men were arrested on Wednesday in a suspected plot to bomb a synagogue and Jewish community center in New York City and to shoot at military planes with stinger missiles, law enforcement officials said.

The four men arrested May 20 after planting what they believed to be bombs near two New York City synagogues appear to be homegrown would-be terrorists. According to the FBI, they met in prison in the US – not some far-off training camp along the Afghan–Pakistani border.

But even without organized instruction, so-called "bunches of guys" jihadists can still be very dangerous. Participants in the New York temple plot allegedly were willing, even eager, to attack unsuspecting civilians and US military aircraft.

"The desire was clearly there," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

The temple plot suspects were apprehended after planting a 37-pound inert explosive device in the trunk of a car outside the Riverdale Temple, and two more inert bombs outside the Riverdale Jewish Center, another synagogue a few blocks away, said US law enforcement authorities.

Police blocked their escaped with an 18-wheel truck, and smashed windows of their black sport utility vehicle. After that the suspects offered no resistance to arrest, according to police.

The four men did not know that the "bombs" they had planted would not have exploded. An FBI informant had infiltrated the group, and provided dummy explosives and other weapons.

The informant was driving the getaway car when the men were arrested, according to a federal complaint filed in district court. Authorities had followed the group's activities with wire taps and video surveillance.

The men – James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen – had planned to drive to the Air National Guard base at Newburgh, New York, after planting their explosives at New York City synagogues, and fire Stinger surface-to-air missiles at US aircraft.

The Stingers were also inoperative FBI-provided equipment. After obtaining them on May 6, via their informant, the group had driven to a storage facility in the Newburgh area, according to the criminal complaint.

"After they locked the weapons in [their] storage container, the ... defendants celebrated their achievement shouting 'Allah Akbar', an Arabic phrase which means, 'praise be to God'," alleges the complaint.

The men met in prison, where they were serving sentences for selling drugs and other non-violent offenses. Three of the four apparently were converts to Islam. James Cromitie, the leader, allegedly was born into a Muslim family.

Cromitie told the federal informant that his parents had lived in Afghanistan and that he was upset about the war there and the many Muslims being killed.

The informant said that he was involved with Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistani terrorist group. Cromitie said he would like to link up with the group, and "do jihad", according to the complaint.

The structure of the group follows the model of decentralized terrorism inspired by the example of Al Qaeda and other organized groups. Disaffected radicals, seeking revenge, organize themselves into "bunches of guys" that seek to carry out what they see as Osama bin Laden's wishes, wrote Marc Sageman, an anti-terror consultant to government and corporations, in his 2008 book "Leaderless Jihad".

Al Qaeda is not dead, but it is contained operationally, according to Mr. Sageman. Islamist organization now takes place in a hostile, post-9/11, wired environment, he writes in a recent issue of the journal Foreign Affairs.

"The Internet has enabled a new wave of terrorist wannabes, who now constitute the main – but not the entire – threat to the West," writes Sageman.

Given their intentions, and resilience, it is organized jihadist groups such as the actual Jaish-e-Mohammed that constitute the greatest threat to the US and its allies, according to Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown.

Consider the Mumbai terror attacks of late 2008, says Hoffman. They were carried out by the Pakistan-based military organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, according to the only attacker who was captured alive.

The Mumbai attacks were professional – and deadly. They consisted of a coordinated series of bomb and gun assaults which took place over three days and left some 173 people dead.

Contrast that with the actions of the Temple plot group, as alleged by US law enforcement. The four men were under surveillance virtually the entire time they were planning their actions.

"Basically, they were stumbling around looking for people to sell them weapons," says Hoffman.

But skill is one thing. Anger and danger is another. It appears that Temple plot participants may have been quite willing to pull the triggers of any weapons they happened to obtain. To those who might have ended up in their sights it would have been immaterial that the attacks weren't as deadly or broad as those in Mumbai.

"Unfortunately we face a multiplicity of threats," says Hoffman.

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