Newburgh, New York Photo credit: government-ny.org

The Long Road of Death and Destruction Between Manhattan in 2001 and Schoharie in 2018

Published at The Greanville Post on November 21, 2018

The glow of the work lights of the World Trade Center seem surreal as seen from the rooftop of my graduate school dormitory at New York University in August 1970. The towers appear in that bath of light contrasted against the surrounding darkness… The two buildings are so mammoth that it seems that I could simply reach out from Washington Square South in Greenwich Village and touch them in lower Manhattan. They are far away in both time and space from the worn out streets of Newburgh, New York in 2008 and the intersection of routes 30 and 30A in Schoharie in 2018, a rural community of about 3,300 people west of the state capital in Albany.

In 2008, an FBI operative and perpetrator of fraud at the Albany, New York Department of Motor Vehicles, Shahed Hussain, showed up at Masjid al-Ikhlas mosque in Newburgh, New York using the name “Maqsood.” Hussain spoke about jihad, violence, and made misogynist statements. Many members of the mosque believed that Hussain was an informant: He was someone to avoid. By 2009, Hussain had encouraged, enlisted, and coaxed four Newburgh men into accepting three targets as part of a cooked-up plan of terrorism. The targets were Riverdale Temple, Riverdale Jewish Center, both in the Bronx, and a military plane or planes at nearby Stewart International Airport in Newburgh. The kingpin of the four was James Cromitie who later said of his accomplices: “(They were) Do[ing] it for the money. They’re not even thinking about the cause.” His accomplices were David Williams, Onta Williams, and Laguerre Payen.

Commenting on the FBI and the way it operated after the September 2001 attacks, Michae German, a former FBI undercover agent said that the “Rules don’t apply anymore,” in reference to how the FBI would function after 2001. In 2001, the FBI failed to pay adequate attention at its administrative level to credible information from an agent in the field that an attack against the U.S. by terrorists was imminent. George W. Bush had similar evidence that an attack would most likely involve aircraft and he failed to act on that information. Many believe that the new branding of the FBI following 2001, in a diminished role within the Department of Homeland Security, created added impetus to find terror plots even where they did not exist. Shahed Hussain fits “neatly” into that pattern and plan.

German continued in the HBO documentary “The Newburgh Sting” (2014): “Treat the entire Muslim community as suspect.” That line of reasoning is evident in a discussion of the Newburgh plan between Hussain and one of his FBI handlers: “Make sure they’re Muslims.” In terms of statistics, it is noteworthy that while there have been reportedly 15,000 FBI informants that agency has used since 2001, not one plot has been connected directly to a mosque. Not a single mosque has been named in an actual act of terror.. However, while the FBI used the tactic of enlisting people through the infiltration and surveillance of mosques and the use of informants including Hussain, major terror cases like the Times Square bomber, the Underwear bomber, and the Boston Marathon bombers have gone undiscovered by the FBI and other intelligence agencies. The infiltration of mosques was government policy and its knowledge travelled in a direct line between intelligence agencies, the attorney general, the FBI director, and the president. In other words, it was policy known and sanctioned at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

On May 6, 2009, the men enlisted in the Newburgh plot drove to Stamford, Connecticut to pick up three dummy backpack bombs and a phony Stinger surface-to-air guided missile. That action made the alleged offenses a federal crime because the men crossed state lines to procure dummy bombs and the missile to be used in the cooked-up terror plot. They purchased cellphones and cameras at a Walmart and a handgun in Brooklyn.

They drove three separate cars to the Bronx on May 20, 2009 and placed the fake bombs and were arrested returning to their cars. The scene of mayhem in the Bronx was notable for the fact that despite the knowledge of no real threat to the targets, a massive law enforcement presence was obvious, including the use of huge trucks to block roads.

Charged with conspiracy and weapons offenses, following their arrest on May 20, 2009, including conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles, their alleged offenses carried a maximum sentence of life in prison.

They pled not guilty in March 2010. Lawyers for the four men filed a motion to dismiss on grounds of entrapment. The proposed scheme by the informant Hussain suggested targets and provided the fake explosives and missile.

In an interview for the documentary, a relative of one of the Newburgh 4, said that the men were out to swindle Hussain, and that is a reasonable conclusion given that they were all poor and desperate for money.

At their trial in August 2010, Hussain raised the specter of anti-Semitism in regard to James Cromitie, and that would have been a powerful issue for the court given the memory of September 11, 2001, the fear of another attack on the city, and the ethnic-religious composition of New York.

The four men were sentenced on June 29, 2011. The trial judge called Cromitie “both bigoted and suggestible,” but having hate-filled sentiments and ideas alone is not enough to sentence someone to jail. The judge continued that the government “did not have to infiltrate and foil some nefarious plot— there was no nefarious plot to foil.” Indeed, the FBI’s informant, Hussain, told Cromitie, as recorded in the HBO documentary “The Newburgh Sting” that “I have lots of ideas for you.” Not only did Hussain have lots of ideas for the four men, but he also enticed Cromitie further with a promise of $250,000, cars, and vacations when Cromitie began to waver and went temporarily AWOL from the plan in 2009, after losing his night job at a local Walmart. One of the Newburgh 4, Onta Williams, had been a factory worker. These were all poor men in a decaying urban environment, and in the case of Payen, here was someone with substantial intellectual and mental health issues, who needed a job and professional treatment, and was regarded as unreliable by Cromitie. The FBI, according to the Newburgh 4 documentary, considered the four men incapable of carrying out an action on their own. There is no doubt that Cromitie held anti-Semitic hatreds, stating to Hussain: “Those fucking Jewish bastards,” but again, holding outrageous, hateful beliefs is a far cry from initiating violent actions against people and institutions that embody different beliefs. All four men were sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.

Prosecutors described the men as “extremely violent,” but they had no violent offenses on their records. The defense argued that men would have never joined the plot without goading by a paid informant. The four men are all now in separate federal prisons.

On August 23, 2013 a federal appeals court in Manhattan voted 2 to 1 to uphold the convictions of the four men. Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs dissented and stated that there was no pre intent and Cromitie was “badgered” into joining the plot. The appeals court also held that the government’s actions in supplying phony weapons and a plot “does not exceed due process limits.” Here existed a kind of governmental tortured logic.

The FBI “would have been derelict in their duties if they did not test how far Cromitie would go to carry out his desires. When a government agent encounters a muslim [sic] who volunteers that he wants to do something to America or die like a martyr, the agent is entitled to probe the attitudes of that person to learn whether his religious views have impelled him toward the violent brand of radical Islam that poses a dire threat to the United States.”

It was not uncommon, following the 2016 general election, to encounter people from all kinds of backgrounds whose sentiments and statements toward Donald Trump could have resulted in their being sent to federal prison given the tortured reasoning of the appeals court in the Newburgh case.

The Deadly Schoharie Limousine Crash

Unintended but foreseeable consequences can come about in a world in which violence and mayhem have become regular, if not the norm. It would have been impossible to predict wars lasting over 17 years as a result of the U.S. arming of the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, or people so bent on destruction that thousands of innocent people would have been killed going about their daily routines in New York City in 2001.

At the time of a limousine crash in Schoharie, New York on October 6, 2018, Shahed Hussain appears to have been in his native country, Pakistan. A limousine carrying 17 people to a birthday party crashed at an intersection killing all of the occupants including the driver, who was not licensed to carry the number of people heading to the party. The limousine had previously failed official safety inspections and was not supposed to be on the road. The limousine was owned and operated by Prestige Limousine, a company whose day-to-day operations were overseen by Shahed Hussain’s son, Nauman, who has been charged as being “criminally negligent” in the deaths of the 20 people in the limo crash (“As community mourns, limo owner’s story emerges,” Times Union, October 14, 2018). The limousine company’s owner was Shahed Hussain.

The elder Hussain had carried out documented FBI stings. Now, the limo his company operated lay in a ditch beyond a Schoharie intersection.

The limousine that had failed several New York state safety inspections crashed at the intersection of routes 30 and 30A in October 2018, near a popular restaurant where two people in the restaurant’s parking lot were also killed by the speeding limo.

It may or may not be possible to trace the money paid to Hussain by the U.S. government for enlisting impoverished, black men into a conspiracy that they could not have dreamt of even in spectacular nightmares. Did the $95,000 of tax-free money that Hussain was paid get funneled into the limo service whose shoddy operation allegedly resulted in the deaths of so many innocent people? It is almost as if the U.S. arrived at a metaphorical crossroads in September 2001 and the horror of that day has resulted and reverberated in so many unanticipated and horrific outcomes. There could have been a choice made in the days following September 11, 2001, perhaps a police action to arrest and try Osama bin Laden and his co-conspirators rather than fighting endless wars, but this nation was already on a course set to double down on that terrorism in ways whose results were almost beyond comprehension.

Hussain’s previous involvement as an informant for the FBI is documented in Mother Jones “Wondering If Your “Jihadist” Friend Is With the FBI” (March 20, 2012), and provides riveting examples of Hussain’s actions in other FBI operations.

Creating terror plots where there were none was one way in which the consequences of national policy have played out. It is approximately 103 miles from Newburgh, New York to Schoharie, and about 68 miles from Manhattan to Newburgh. No one could have anticipated the insanity and death that would link these three places before September 11, 2001 and the thousands of lives that would be erased and fractured and the intersections of how those events reverberated into the present.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.

Notes: Calls to several offices went unanswered as I attempted to seek comments on both the Newburgh 4 and the Schoharie crash. The New York Conference of the NAACP would not comment, but referred me to the national headquarters of the NAACP, where my call to the media director of the organization was not returned. I had called the NAACP because neither of the numbers of the Albany and the Newburgh NAACP were working numbers. I attempted to get a comment from a representative of the Masjid al-Ikhlas mosque in Newburgh, and I received no response. I did speak with a staff writer for the Times Union who confirmed that Hussain’s whereabouts were not known at the time of the publication of that paper’s article cited above. Finally, I contacted the office of one of the attorneys for the Newburgh 4, Samuel Braverman, and received no comment.

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