WASHINGTON — Four men were arrested Wednesday night on suspicion of plotting to blow up several targets in the New York City area, including a synagogue, and to shoot down military planes with surface-to-air missiles, authorities said.
The four had been under surveillance for some time by an undercover informant, the FBI and the New York Police Department, according to a criminal complaint unsealed late Wednesday. All of them live in Newburgh, N.Y., about 60 miles north of New York City.
Local and federal law enforcement officials involved in the investigation said there was little danger that the men could have carried out the plan, in part because authorities had disabled the explosives and a missile before giving them to the accused plotters in a sting.
Nevertheless, "they had a real plot," one FBI official said in Washington. At least some of them were converts to Islam, he said.
Lev L. Dassin, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said the men "wanted to engage in terrorist attacks."
"They selected targets and sought the weapons necessary to carry out their plans," Dassin said in a statement. "Fortunately, the defendants sought the assistance of a witness cooperating with the government. While the weapons provided to the defendants by the cooperating witness were fake, the defendants thought they were absolutely real."
The men were identified as James Cromitie, also known as Abdul Rahman; David Williams, or Daoud; Onta Williams, or Hamza; and Laguerre Payen, or Amin.
Each has been charged with one count of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction in the United States and one count of conspiracy to acquire and use antiaircraft missiles. Each count carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
The men were expected to appear today in federal court in White Plains, N.Y. .
The yearlong undercover operation began in Newburgh. Authorities concluded that the suspects wanted to detonate a car loaded with C-4 plastic explosives outside a temple in the Bronx. They also planned to use Stinger missiles to shoot down military planes at the New York Air National Guard Base at Stewart Airport in Newburgh, the complaint alleged.
In July, the complaint says, the informant told Cromitie that he was a member of a Pakistani militant group with ties to Al Qaeda, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and Cromitie said he wanted to join so he could "do jihad" because U.S. soldiers were killing so many Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In one conversation, Cromitie allegedly told the informant that "the best target [the World Trade Center] was hit already," but that he also wanted to attack a synagogue because he hated Jews.
If legitimate, the plot would appear to be one of the most serious to be contemplated on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001.
As with some other alleged "homegrown" attacks, the informant played a central role in discussing the plot with some of the alleged co-conspirators, according to the complaint. At times he appeared to assist them in procuring weapons and in advancing the alleged plot in other ways.