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Judge slams FBI sting tactics as she frees man jailed for ‘fictitious’ terror plot

James Cromitie after his arrest in May 2009 (Robert Mecea/AP)
James Cromitie after his arrest in May 2009 (Robert Mecea/AP)

The last of four men ensnared in an infamous anti-terror sting operation will be released from prison after a US judge ruled that his crimes had been entirely manufactured by the FBI.

James Cromitie, 58, was jailed in 2010 for conspiring to bomb a New York City synagogue and attack a military airbase at the instigation of a government informant.

Critics said the FBI's conduct amounted to entrapment, championing the so-called "Newburgh Four" as symbols of authoritarian overreach in the wake of 9/11.

Now the judge who originally put Cromitie behind bars has ordered that he be released after serving 15 years of his 25-year sentence while excoriating the government's conduct.

"Nothing about the crimes of conviction was of defendants' own making," wrote US District Judge Colleen McMahon in a fiery opinion on Friday.

"The FBI invented the conspiracy; identified the targets; manufactured the ordnance; federalised what would otherwise have been a state crime by driving three of the four men into Connecticut... and picked the day for the 'mission'."

She described the FBI's informant, Shahed Hussain, as "most unsavoury" and "a villain", arguing that "the real lead conspirator was the United States".

Cromitie's co-defendants Laguerre Payen, David Williams, and Onta Williams were all released last July for the same reasons. However, none of their convictions will be overturned.

The supposed terror plot began in 2008 at a mosque in Newburgh, New York, where Cromitie and the others – all Black Muslims – were recruited by Mr Hussain.

The four men, Judge McMahon wrote, were "impoverished small time grifters" with no history of terrorism and a constant need for cash, which Mr Hussain offered them in spades.

Mr Hussain would later flee the country after his limousine rental business, which had repeatedly failed inspections, was implicated in a crash that killed 20 people.

According to Judge McMahon, Mr Hussain roped the men into an elaborate plot that involved blowing up a synagogue and a Jewish community centre, as well as firing (fake) anti-air missiles at US military planes.

The latter component, she said, had been devised by the government solely to ensure that the four men would receive a statutory minimum sentence of 25 years.

"As heinous as was Cromitie's agreement to participate in what the FBI and Hussain had cooked up – and make no mistake, it was heinous – he was sentenced for participating in a fictitious plot to do things that he could never have dreamed up on his own, and that were never going to happen," Judge McMahon wrote, noting Cromitie's "well-documented buffoonery and ineptitude".

While condemning Cromitie's "vile antisemitic language" during the original plot, she said that he had been mirroring language used by Mr Hussain himself and that vile words did not justify 25 years in prison.