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The Informants

The FBI has built a massive network of spies to prevent another domestic attack. But are they busting terrorist plots—or leading them?

So what really happens as an informant works his target, sometimes over a period of years, and eases him over the line? For the answer to that, consider once more the case of James Cromitie, the Walmart stocker with a hatred of Jews. Cromitie was the ringleader in the much-publicized Bronx synagogue bombing plot that went to trial last year. But a closer look at the record reveals that while Cromitie was no one's idea of a nice guy, whatever leadership existed in the plot emanated from his sharply dressed, smooth-talking friend Maqsood, a.k.a. FBI informant Shahed Hussain.

A Pakistani refugee who claimed to be friends with Benazir Bhutto and had a soft spot for fancy cars, Hussain was by then one of the FBI's more successful counterterrorism informants. (See our timeline of Hussain's career as an informant.) He'd originally come to the bureau's attention when he was busted in a DMV scam that charged test takers $300 to $500 for a license. Having "worked off" those charges, he'd transitioned from indentured informant to paid snitch, earning as much as $100,000 per assignment.

At trial, informant Hussain admitted that he created the "impression" that his target would make big money by bombing synagogues in the Bronx.

Hussain was assigned to visit a mosque in Newburgh, where he would start conversations with strangers about jihad. "I was finding people who would be harmful, and radicals, and identify them for the FBI," Hussain said during Cromitie's trial. Most of the mosque's congregants were poor, and Hussain, who posed as a wealthy businessman and always arrived in one of his four luxury cars—a Hummer, a Mercedes, two different BMWs—made plenty of friends. But after more than a year working the local Muslim community, he had not identified a single actual target.

Then, one day in June 2008, Cromitie approached Hussain in the parking lot outside the mosque. The two became friends, and Hussain clearly had Cromitie's number. "Allah didn't bring you here to work for Walmart," he told him at one point.

Cromitie, who once claimed he could "con the corn from the cob," had a history of mental instability. He told a psychiatrist that he saw and heard things that weren't there and had twice tried to commit suicide. He told tall tales, most of them entirely untrue—like the one about how his brother stole $126 million worth of stuff from Tiffany.

Exactly what Hussain and Cromitie talked about in the first four months of their relationship isn't known, because the FBI did not record those conversations. Based on later conversations, it's clear that Hussain cultivated Cromitie assiduously. He took the target, all expenses paid by the FBI, to an Islamic conference in Philadelphia to meet Imam Siraj Wahhaj, a prominent African-American Muslim leader. He helped pay Cromitie's rent. He offered to buy him a barbershop. Finally, he asked Cromitie to recruit others and help him bomb synagogues.

On April 7, 2009, at 2:45 p.m., Cromitie and Hussain sat on a couch inside an FBI cover house on Shipp Street in Newburgh. A hidden camera was trained on the living room.

"I don't want anyone to get hurt," Cromitie told the informant.

"Who? I—"

"Think about it before you speak," Cromitie interrupted.

"If there is American soldiers, I don't care," Hussain said, trying a fresh angle.

"Hold up," Cromitie agreed. "If it's American soldiers, I don't even care."

"If it's kids, I care," Hussain said. "If it's women, I care."

"I care. That's what I'm worried about. And I'm going to tell you, I don't care if it's a whole synagogue of men."

"Yep."

"I would take 'em down, I don't even care. 'Cause I know they are the ones."

"We have the equipment to do it."

"See, see, I'm not worried about nothing. Ya know? What I'm worried about is my safety," Cromitie said.

"Oh, yeah, safety comes first."

"I want to get in and I want to get out."

"Trust me," Hussain assured.

At Cromitie's trial, Hussain would admit that he created the—in his word—"impression" that Cromitie would make a lot of money by bombing synagogues.

"I can make you $250,000, but you don't want it, brother," he once told Cromitie when the target seemed hesitant. "What can I tell you?" (Asked about the exchange in court, Hussain said that "$250,000" was simply a code word for the bombing plot—a code word, he admitted, that only he knew.)

But whether for ideology or money, Cromitie did recruit three others, and they did take photographs of Stewart International Airport in Newburgh as well as of synagogues in the Bronx. On May 20, 2009, Hussain drove Cromitie to the Bronx, where Cromitie put what he believed were bombs inside cars he thought had been parked by Hussain's coconspirators. Once all the dummy bombs were placed, Cromitie headed back to the getaway car—Hussain was in the driver's seat—and then a SWAT team surrounded the car.

At trial, Cromitie told the judge: "I am not a violent person. I've never been a terrorist, and I never will be. I got myself into this stupid mess. I know I said a lot of stupid stuff." He was sentenced to 25 years.

For his trouble, the FBI paid Hussain $96,000. Then he moved on to another case, another mosque, somewhere in the United States.

For this project, Mother Jones partnered with the University of California-Berkeley's Investigative Reporting Program, headed by Lowell Bergman, where Trevor Aaronson was an investigative fellow. The Fund for Investigative Journalism also provided support for Aaronson's reporting. Lauren Ellis and Hamed Aleaziz contributed additional research.

 

UPDATE: On September 28, Rezwan Ferdaus, a 26-year-old graduate of Northeastern University, was arrested and charged with providing resources to a foreign terrorist organization and attempting to destroy national defense premises. Ferdaus, according to the FBI, planned to blow up both the Pentagon and Capitol Building with a "large remote controlled aircraft filled with C-4 plastic explosives."

The case was part of a nearly ten-month investigation led by the FBI. Not surprisingly, Ferdaus' case fits a pattern detailed by Trevor Aaronson in this article: the FBI provided Ferdaus with the explosives and materials needed to pull off the plot. In this case, two undercover FBI employees, who Ferdaus believed were al Qaeda members, gave Ferdaus $7,500 to purchase an F-86 Sabre model airplane that Ferdaus hoped to fill with explosives. Right before his arrest, the FBI employees gave Ferdaus, who lived at home with his parents, the explosives he requested to pull off his attack. And just how did the FBI come to meet Ferdaus? An informant with a criminal record introduced Ferdaus to the supposed al Qaeda members.

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