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4 held in NY synagogue bomb plot

New York, May 21: Four men were arrested last night in what the authorities said was a plot to bomb two synagogues in the Bronx and shoot down military planes at an Air National Guard base in Newburgh, New York.

The men, all of whom live in Newburgh, about 97km north of New York city, were arrested around 9pm after planting what they believed to be bombs in cars outside the Riverdale Temple and the nearby Riverdale Jewish Centre, officials said. But the men did not know the bombs, obtained with the help of an FBI informant, were fake.

The arrests capped what officials described as a “painstaking investigation” that began in June 2008 involving an FBI agent who had been told by a federal informant of the men’s desire to attack targets in America. As part of the plot, the men intended to fire Stinger missiles at military aircraft at the base, which is at Stewart International Airport, officials said.

“This latest attempt to attack our freedom shows that the homeland security threats against New York city are sadly all too real and underscores why we must remain vigilant in our efforts to prevent terrorism,” mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said.

The charges against the four men represent some of the most significant allegations of domestic terrorism in some time. It comes as President Obama grapples with the question of how to handle detainees at the Guantánamo Bay camp in Cuba. Jonathan I. Rosenblatt, the senior rabbi at the Riverdale Jewish Centre, a modern Orthodox congregation, said the police informed him yesterday evening that his synagogue was a target of the plot, as well as the Riverdale Temple, a Reform synagogue that is a short distance away, on Independence Avenue.

The two buildings are about six blocks apart, each with a brick facade. Outside the synagogues last night, the streets were eerily quiet.

Rosenblatt said in a phone interview that he took the news with “shock, surprise — a sense of disbelief that something which is supposed to belong to the world of front pages and the evening news had invaded the quiet world of our synagogue”.

Jonathan Mark, associate editor of The Jewish Week newspaper who grew up in Riverdale, said it would have been the third plot in the past decade against the synagogues in Riverdale.

Law enforcement officials identified the four men arrested as James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen, all from Newburgh. Some of the men were of Arabic descent while one is of Haitian origin, law enforcement officials said. At least three were US citizens, according to officials and all are Muslim.

Cromitie, whose parents had lived in Afghanistan before his birth, had told the informant that he was upset about the war in Afghanistan and that that he wanted to do “something to America”. Cromitie stated “the best target” — the World Trade Centre — “was hit already,” according to the complaint. In April, Cromitie and the three other men selected the synagogues as their targets, the statement said. The informant soon helped them get the weapons, which were incapable of being fired or detonated, according to the authorities.

The men planned to leave the bombs in the cars in front of the two synagogues, drive back to Newburgh and retrieve cellphone-detonating devices and then proceed with the attack on the air base — simultaneously shooting down aircraft while remotely setting off the devices in the cars.

Last night, they planted one of the mock improvised explosive devices in a trunk of a car outside the temple and two mock bombs in the back seat of a car outside the Jewish centre.

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