A foiled plot and the very real grassroots risk

Editor's Note: This special feature is reprinted in partnership with Stratfor, a global private intelligence company. Fred Burton, the former deputy chief of the State Department's counterterrorism division, presently serves as vice president for counterterrorism and corporate security at Stratfor, and recently released his autobiography: GHOST, Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent. For a special offer to get a copy of GHOST, and to read more about Fred Burton and his role at Stratfor, click here.

Four men appeared in court in White Plains, N.Y., on May 21 to face charges of plotting to bomb two Jewish targets in the Bronx and to shoot down a military aircraft at an Air National Guard base in Newburgh, N.Y. The suspects — James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen, all from Newburgh, N.Y. — have been charged with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction within the United States and conspiracy to acquire and use antiaircraft missiles, according to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. They were arrested May 20 after a nearly year-long FBI investigation.

Payen is from Haiti, but the other three men in the grassroots militant cell are U.S. citizens. Cromitie, the apparent ringleader, was reared as a Muslim to parents who had spent time in Afghanistan; the other three men converted to Islam in prison. The men apparently began their plot in Newburgh in 2008 and were discovered by authorities when they recruited an undercover informant operating out of a Newburgh mosque into their group.

The informant allowed law enforcement agencies to monitor the group’s activities, and gave the men inert plastic explosives and an inoperable FIM-92 “Stinger” man-portable air defense system (MANPADS) on May 6. According to authorities, the men used the inert plastic explosives (which they thought was C-4) to construct three approximately 37-pound improvised explosive devices — enough material to inflict serious damage on nearby buildings and kill any passersby in the area if it had been real. On the evening of May 20, one of the devices was placed in a vehicle parked outside of the Riverdale Temple and the other two were put in vehicles parked outside the Riverdale Jewish Center in the Bronx. The men also allegedly conducted pre-operational surveillance of an Air National Guard base and had planned to use the MANPADS to target an aircraft there after remotely detonating the explosives at the temple and Jewish center with a cell phone.

For a special offer to get a copy of GHOST, and to read additional information about Fred Burton and his role at Stratfor, click here.

For a special offer to get a copy of GHOST, and to read additional information about Fred Burton and his role at Stratfor, click here.

The details of this plot available so far appear to track very closely with much of what STRATFOR has written over the past several years regarding both the potential danger from — and limitations of — grassroots jihadists.

The Newburgh group appears to have had the intent to cause damage, but not the capability. As STRATFOR has previously noted, in spite of the large amount of terrorism-related material available on the Internet, it is more difficult to conduct a terrorist attack than it appears, and militants often experience a disconnect between intent and capability. The Newburgh group apparently did not possess the skills required to make improvised explosive mixtures. Because of this, they needed an outside source to provide them with the explosives for their attack — a need that made the group vulnerable to penetration and reduced their operational security.

Because of a lack of skills — what STRATFOR calls militant tradecraft — and the difficulty of successfully manufacturing or even stealing effective explosives, many grassroots militants attempt to procure explosives or military weaponry. It is at this stage, when they reach out for assistance, that many groups have come to the attention of law enforcement. When a group is forced to look outward for assistance, it gives law enforcement the opportunity to intercept the group by planting an informant or setting up surveillance of their activities.

Informants’ penetration of grassroots militant groups is just one way in which operational security (OPSEC) has long proven to be the bane of such groups. These militant cells also frequently make tradecraft blunders in conducting surveillance, in their communication, or even in the execution of their attacks. This has caused many to refer to such militants as “Kramer” jihadists (named after the character on the television show “Seinfeld”).

With an informant in place, the task force in charge of tracking the Newburgh plotters most likely constructed an elaborate surveillance system that kept the four men under constant watch during the investigation and sting operation, using technical surveillance of their residences and potential targets. By keeping tabs on the group’s communications and movements, law enforcement officials would be able to gain control over the group’s activities to such a degree that they felt confident letting the plotters plant the inert explosives outside the Jewish sites. Since the group was allowed to carry out its plans to that extent, the prosecution team will be able to make a stronger case against the plotters and seek a longer prison term. Also, by intercepting the plotters when they did, the law enforcement agencies involved were able to soak up the group’s time and energy, denying the plotters the ability to continue probing for a real weapons dealer or someone who would be able to help them carry out a real attack.

Although this group lacked skill and made some seemingly amateur moves (such as compromising their OPSEC, and thus allowing a government informant into their cell) they still possess the intent to kill people, and occasionally, groups like this get it right. Had the group contacted an actual jihadist operative — a tactical commander with practical bomb-making skills — instead of a government informant, the results of this case could have been quite different. Because of this risk, the group posed a very real threat.

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