Local link in terror plot
Informant used by FBI in Albany terror sting plays similar role in cracking alleged Newburgh cell
By BRENDAN J. LYONS, Senior writer | May 22, 2009
ALBANY — The informant used to ensnare a group of suspected jihadists in Newburgh Wednesday was also used by the FBI in 2004 in a widely publicized terrorism case against two Albany residents.
Two persons familiar with the case confirmed that Shahed "Malik" Hussain, a former Loudonville resident, was involved in the sting operation that authorities said exposed a desire by four men to attack targets ranging from synagogues to military bases.
Paul Holstein, spokesman for the FBI in Albany, declined to comment and referred all questions to the bureau's New York City field office.
Hussain, convicted of federal fraud-related charges in 2002, became an FBI informant, according to court records. However, his criminal file has since vanished from public records in U.S. District Court.
In 2004, the FBI recruited him to infiltrate the inner circle of Masjid As-Salam, a storefront mosque that had drawn the attention of federal agents after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Hussain's efforts helped lead to the convictions of Central Avenue pizza shop owner Mohammed Mosharref Hossain and Yassin Muhiddin Aref, the mosque's imam, in a sting operation built a spurious scheme to aid terrorists.
Hussain's role on behalf of the FBI was sharply criticized by defense attorneys who argued that his efforts amounted to entrapment against Hossain and Aref.
Terence L. Kindlon, Aref's criminal defense attorney, called Hussain a ''highly sophisticated confidence man'' who cannot be trusted because he is paid for his informant work.
"My experience taught me that I couldn't trust him,'' Kindlon said. "As for the case based upon his work, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is."
Mohammed Hossain's attorney, Kevin A. Luibrand, expressed a similar opinion of the FBI's informant, who had befriended the Albany targets at the direction of the FBI, who suspected Aref was tied to Middle Eastern terrorists.
"It's interesting that the government again recruited Malik since it was established in the Albany case that he lied repeatedly and consistently to his FBI handlers," Luibrand said.
During the Albany trial, there was testimony that the informant's recorded conversations with the Albany targets were in Urdu. The informant would then translate those conversations for FBI agents, who later learned that the translations were not always accurate, according to the defense team.
Hussain also played a role as informant in the probe that led to Wednesday's arrest of four men from Newburgh after authorities said they planted what the suspects believed to be plastic explosives outside the Riverdale Jewish Center and Riverdale Temple in New York City. The four men were identified as Laguerre Payen, 27; James Cromitie, whom records show is 44; Onta Williams, 32, and David Williams, 28.
Authorities told The Associated Press that the four men were ex-convicts who envisioned themselves as holy warriors. But they had trouble finding guns and bought cameras at Wal-Mart to photograph their targets. Payen was a convicted purse snatcher, and Cromitie smoked marijuana the day the plot was to be carried out.
They spent months scouting targets and securing what they thought was a surface-to-air missile system and powerful explosives — all under the watch of the FBI informant.
The bombs they planted Wednesday were useless, packed with inert explosives supplied by the FBI instead of the Pakistani terrorist group they had pledged to support, according to a criminal complaint.
They appeared in court Thursday to answer charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction within the United States and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles. They did not enter pleas and were held without bail; they face life in prison if convicted.
Besides planting the bombs in the heavily Jewish Riverdale section of the Bronx, they intended to shoot down planes at the Air National Guard base in Newburgh, prosecutors said.
Relatives said the defendants were down-on-their-luck men who found work at Wal-Mart, a landscaping company and a warehouse when they weren't behind bars. Payen's lawyer, Marilyn Reader, said he was "intellectually challenged" and on medication for schizophrenia and has "a very low borderline" IQ.
Payen appears to be a Haitian citizen, while the other three are Americans. The Williamses are not related.
Relatives said Payen, David Williams and Onta Williams were introduced to Islam in prison. According to The New York Times, law enforcement officials initially said the four men were Muslims, but on Thursday their religious backgrounds remained uncertain. They didn't serve prison time together.
Authorities say the informant first met Cromitie at the Masjid al-Ikhlas mosque in Newburgh in June 2008.
The mosque is led by Imam Salahuddin Muhammad, who has worked since 1985 as a chaplain in Fishkill Correctional Facility, the medium-security prison in Beacon, and also serves as a chaplain one day a week at Bard College.
"I know the mosque and I know the imam very well," said Lawrence Mamiya, an expert on Islam who teaches at Vassar College. "He's not radical at all. He's very mainstream."
The complaint portrays Cromitie as the instigator of the conspiracy, telling the informant last July that he wanted to join Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistani terrorist group with which the informant claimed to be involved. By December, Cromitie was asking the informant to supply explosives and surface-to-air missiles, in one of many discussions secretly recorded in a Newburgh home the FBI had outfitted with video and audio equipment, the complaint said.