NEW YORK-After she dismissed her adult education class on Wednesday night, Rabbi Judith Lewis found two men in the lobby of Riverdale Temple, a Reform synagogue in the Bronx. They identified themselves as plainclothes police officers on a stakeout. Lewis said she joked, "Please, if you have to shoot, don't break the glass. It was just replaced!" She remembered the officers laughed.
Lewis headed home with the radio on, discovering on the way that the Riverdale Temple and the nearby Riverdale Jewish Center were the targets of a foiled terrorist attack. On Wednesday night, four men-James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams, and Laguerre Payen-were arrested for conspiring to use a surface-to-air guided missile to shoot down aircraft at the New York Air National Guard Base, and for conspiring to bomb the synagogue and nearby center.
According to the complaint, an informant has been working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to foil the plot, and the explosives the men obtained were fake. The complaint states that the informant first met Cromitie in 2008. Cromitie told the informant that he was angry about the war in Afghanistan, that he wanted to "do something to America," and that if he died a martyr he would go to "paradise."
Cromitie said he wanted to join the terrorist organization Jaish-e-Mohammed to "do jihad" but that the best target-the World Trade Center-was already hit. He and the other alleged terrorists met with the informant beginning in October of 2008, choosing their targets in April of 2009, and conducting surveillance to prepare.
The FBI kept the alleged terrorists under surveillance the entire time, bugging the Newburgh, N.Y., home where they had their meetings. The FBI also provided the informant and alleged bombers with fake explosives and a fake missile.
According to the U.S. Attorney press release, the four men are charged with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction within the United States and with conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles.
The Riverdale community continues its quiet existence today, except for the steady stream of reporters into the Riverdale Temple and Riverdale Jewish Center. Rachel Radna, president of the congregation, described the community as quiet-"almost sleepy." There are quiet, shady sidewalks and few pedestrians-perhaps why Cromitie said bombing the community center would be "a piece of cake." The highway is also close by, providing a quick getaway.
"We never felt we were in any kind of danger or threat, just because we didn't know," said Radna. "That's very chilling and scary to think about." She said she did not know why the alleged terrorists would have chosen a Wednesday night, since the synagogue was almost empty that night, except for Lewis' class, a philosophy class, and a meeting.
Police officers were stationed outside Riverdale Temple on Thursday, as the synagogue carried on with its regular activities: a study group, a nursery school, and a meeting tonight. The Temple is planning to hold Shabbat services tomorrow as usual, and Radna said they are expecting a larger than normal crowd: "When stuff like this happens, people feel a need to reach out and come together with their community."