To his Uncle Richard, Onta Williams is passive to a fault, too weak-willed to defy men at the local mosque who urged him to shun his uncle, who is gay. To his neighbors, James Cromitie is a “cool dude,” a Muslim who prayed regularly but also joined their beery chat sessions and never uttered a hateful word.
But to prosecutors, Williams and Cromitie are homegrown terrorists who, working with two other men, spent nearly a year formulating a plot to blow up Jewish centers in the New York City suburb of Riverdale and shoot a military plane over blue-collar Newburgh in the Hudson River Valley.
Williams, 32, and Cromitie, 55 -- along with codefendants David Williams, 28, and Laguerre Payen, 27 -- appeared in federal court Thursday on charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction in the U.S. and conspiracy to acquire and use an antiaircraft missile. They were arrested late Wednesday outside a synagogue they allegedly targeted.
Prosecutors called it the latest in a string of homegrown terrorism plots hatched after Sept. 11. The case is likely to energize opponents of President Obama’s argument that the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be closed and that its inmates should be sent elsewhere -- some to the U.S.
“It’s hard to envision a more chilling plot,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Eric Snyder said in court Thursday. He described all four suspects as “eager to bring death to Jews.”
“It shows how real the threat is from homegrown terrorists,” said Rep. Peter T. King of New York, the senior Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee.
The indictment described the four men as seeking to avenge the deaths of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, and driven by a hatred of Jews.
Cromitie, the alleged ringleader, first began discussing the plan in June after meeting an FBI informant at the Masjid Al-Ikhlas mosque in Newburgh, according to the charges. He said he felt ties to Afghanistan because his parents had lived there before he was born, and he expressed interest in joining Jaish-e- Mohammed, a Pakistan-based group labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S.
He described the World Trade Center as “the best target” and lamented that it already had been destroyed. After months of research, he settled on a Jewish community center and nearby synagogue, because quiet Riverdale would be “a piece of cake” to attack, he allegedly told the informant.
Cromitie and the others -- some of whom embraced Islam in prison -- also plotted to buy a Stinger missile to shoot a military aircraft over Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, prosecutors said. Troops and military supplies bound for Iraq and Afghanistan leave from Stewart.
Richard Williams, brother of Onta Williams’ late mother, shook his head in wonder Thursday as he sat on the porch of his worn two-story brick house in Newburgh. Across the road, geese ambled across the lawns of a shady park. But just down the block, locals said, crack cocaine is sold openly.
It was drugs that landed Onta Williams in prison, where he turned to Islam, said his uncle. When Onta Williams was released about three years ago, he came to live with his uncle.
“I’m the favorite uncle. I’m the gay uncle, so he viewed me as a second mother,” said Richard Williams. But mosque members objected to homosexuality and persuaded his nephew to move out about a year ago. Onta Williams moved in with a girlfriend in nearby Beacon. He had a job loading and unloading trucks.
“He’s a follower, not a leader. He’s easy to push around,” said Richard Williams. “I just can’t think of why he would do something like this, except for the crew he was running with.”
Onta Williams sometimes brought friends to the house and used the peeling wooden porch for boozy parties, though Islam prohibits alcohol. But he also grew his beard thick and bushy in keeping with devout Muslim norms, to the point that “he looked like a pilgrim,” his uncle said.
Cromitie, too, served time in prison on drug offenses.
Neighbors in the apartment block alongside a lake where Cromitie lived said his drug days appeared to be over. For several years, they said, they had known him as an easygoing, friendly man who went to work at Wal-Mart and went to the mosque, but never tried to convert anyone to Islam.
He also never shied away from the regular gatherings of beer-drinking pals who were hanging out Thursday near Cromitie’s unit.
“There’s nothing bad to say about him,” said one, who gave his name only as Ricky and who had a large cross tattooed on his forearm. Others said Cromitie would help them carry their groceries and prune their hedges.
“He’s an average guy,” said Ricky.
“Whatever he did,” Ricky said, “he didn’t do around us.”
Suspect David Williams (no relation to Onta Williams) is another prison convert to Islam, according to aunt Aahkiyaah Cummings. She described him as a good father to his two young children.
The only one of the four suspects who appears to have aroused any suspicion was Payen, a Haitian native who attended the Newburgh mosque. Assistant imam Hamid Rashada said his dishevelment and odd behavior disturbed some members, said the assistant imam, Hamid Rashada.
When Payen appeared in court, defense attorney Marilyn Reader described him as “intellectually challenged” and on medication for schizophrenia. The Associated Press said that when he was asked if he understood the proceedings, Payen replied: “Sort of.”