The scheme was so nascent that there was no developed plan for how the plotters would get explosives, let alone gain access to the targets.
NEW YORK — Federal investigators on Saturday said they had disrupted a plot by Islamic extremists to blow up buildings, fuel tanks and pipelines at John F. Kennedy International Airport, another plan to take aim at America’s air-travel system and a landmark in its largest city.
The arrests of a U.S. citizen from Guyana and alleged accomplices in Trinidad underscored what counterterrorism officials have described as the global spread of the terrorist threat beyond the Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia associated with al-Qaida and other groups.
A retired airport cargo worker and a former member of parliament in Guyana were among four men charged with a plot that officials said was intended to cause mass casualties and cripple one of the world’s busiest travel hubs.
Investigators acknowledged, however, that the scheme was so nascent that there was no developed plan for how the plotters would get explosives, let alone gain access to the tanks and pipelines they hoped to target.
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The plotters had gathered detailed surveillance of the airport, made repeated overseas trips and sought the assistance of a radical Islamic organization in Trinidad, according to federal officials who cited information obtained from an investigation under way since January 2006.
“The devastation that would have been caused had this plot succeeded is unthinkable,” Roslynn Mauskopf, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said at a Saturday afternoon news conference in Manhattan to announce the arrests.
Even so, officials downplayed the danger to travelers, stressing that the plot was far from “operational” and that there was no intelligence to suggest an imminent threat in the United States. Officials also said there was no indication of any links to the al-Qaida terrorist network.
The main figure in the alleged plot was identified as Russell Defreitas, a 63-year-old U.S. citizen from Guyana who worked at JFK handling cargo until 1995. He was arrested at a Brooklyn diner Friday night. Two other suspects were said to be in custody in Trinidad, while a fourth remained at large.
“Defreitas was driving this,” said a U.S. federal law-enforcement official familiar with the investigation. “But he was trying to hook up with some heavy hitters who had connections for backing and financing.”
Authorities described Defreitas in contradictory terms. New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly called Defreitas a “self-radicalized New Yorker” who was “plotting to betray his adopted country with a catastrophic attack.” But a federal law-enforcement official said the suspect seemed more like a “sad old guy who’s got a lot of spit and vinegar in him.”
Defreitas was arraigned at a Brooklyn courthouse Saturday and was denied bail.
The case is the latest in a series of alleged domestic terrorist threats involving Muslims residing legally in the United States, including one last month targeting the Fort Dix military base in New Jersey.
And it appears to carry some of the same complications of those earlier investigations and prosecutions — including the reliance on a paid FBI informant with a lengthy criminal record, and questions about some of the alleged plotters’ intentions and capabilities.
Investigators indicated Saturday that they were forced to move more quickly than they had planned to roll up the alleged scheme, prompted by the unexpected arrest of one of the primary suspects, Abdul Kadir, in Trinidad on Friday. Kadir was described as an imam, a former Guyanese lawmaker and the former mayor of Linden, Guyana.
“We had to move real fast after the Trinidadians arrested [Kadir],” the federal law-enforcement official said. He said it was unclear why authorities in Trinidad had made the arrest, but that it prompted fears among law-enforcement officials that others under investigation would flee.
Defreitas was arrested a short time later in Brooklyn. A third suspect, Kareem Ibrahim, a citizen of Trinidad, was arrested in that country.
The fourth suspect, Abdel Nur, a citizen of Guyana, is still at large and believed to be in Trinidad, officials said.
The United States is seeking the extradition of Kadir and Ibrahim. All four suspects could face life in prison if convicted.
The aim of the plot, officials said, was to deliver a crippling psychological and economic blow to the United States by blowing up pieces of Kennedy’s elaborate jet-fuel-storage and pipeline system — which stretches across several of the city’s boroughs through New Jersey to a supply point in Allentown, Pa.
Kennedy airport is among the world’s busiest, with about a thousand flights a day, and is expected to handle about 45 million passengers this year and 1.5 million tons of cargo.
Much of the U.S. government’s case is built on information obtained with the help of an FBI informant who is not named in the complaint but is described as having been convicted of federal drug trafficking and criminal-conspiracy charges. The informant’s sentence for his latest conviction “is pending as part of his cooperation agreement with the government,” according to the complaint filed Friday and unsealed Saturday.
Defreitas said he knew the informant from an unidentified Brooklyn mosque, according to the complaint, and drew him into his alleged scheme. The two are described as making repeated visits to JFK together to conduct surveillance and make videotapes of potential targets. The two also traveled to Guyana together.
The complaint details efforts to tap into Muslim extremists from the United States, Guyana and Trinidad, including the Jamaat al Muslimeen, a group that was responsible for a coup attempt in Trinidad in 1990. It stated that the men tried to solicit money, expertise and technical help from overseas contacts.
The complaint includes transcripts of recorded conversations between Defreitas and the FBI informant. In one section, Defreitas describes his desire to launch a strike that would surpass the impact of the Sept. 11 attacks and explains that his former job had given him “unique knowledge of the airport.” In other conversations cited in the complaint, Defreitas describes being angered while working at JFK to see military parts being shipped to Israel “that he felt would be used to kill Muslims.”
Defreitas also talks about the psychological impact on Americans of striking a target bearing the Kennedy name. “Anytime you hit Kennedy, it is the most hurtful thing to the United States,” he said, according to the complaint. “To hit John F. Kennedy, wow. They love John F. Kennedy like he’s the man. If you hit that, this whole country will be in mourning. It’s like you can kill the man twice.”
The complaint outlines elaborate efforts by Defreitas and others to gather information on the airport, including making videotapes of areas where planes are parked, and downloading satellite images from Web sites to map the airport’s layout.
Defreitas also made repeated trips to Guyana in recent months in an effort to enlist help from Kadir and others to carry out the attack, according to the complaint.
Defreitas “had some ideas” about what he wanted to do, said the U.S. law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But he was a long way of from being operational or even coming close to getting explosives or posing a direct threat to JFK.” The official characterized the seriousness of the plot as “a notch below Fort Dix” — the recent case in which a group of Muslim men in New Jersey were charged with planning a sniper attack on the military base.
The complaint lists at least a dozen other unnamed figures who are believed to be connected to the plot or are being sought for questioning, officials said. “We had hopes to get a lot more people but they are still at large,” the U.S. law-enforcement official said. “They’re not charged, but they are still involved.”