JFK terror plot mastermind thought of "blowing up" airport while working as cargo handler - nabbed walking out of Brooklyn diner
June 2, 2007
June 2, 2007, 11:07 PM EDT
NEW YORK -- The alleged plot to blow up Kennedy Airport's fuel system, intended to be more destructive and deadly than the Sept. 11 attacks, was driven by a deep-seated hatred of the United States and the West and now spotlights the Caribbean as another region of the world that increasingly poses a terrorism threat.
Authorities said four men, including a former member of the Guyanese parliament as well as a Brooklyn man who was a Kennedy cargo worker, are being charged with conspiring to plant explosives to damage the airport's jet-fuel supply tanks. The men allegedly also had plans to plant explosives on a 40-mile pipeline that winds its way from a facility in Linden, N.J., through Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens on its way to Kennedy Airport.
The plot, which the men code-named "Chicken Farm," was foiled "well before it came to fruition," authorities said Saturday in unveiling the threat. The men had not gotten the explosives or financing needed to carry out their plan.
"The devastation that would be caused had this plot succeeded is just unthinkable," said U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf at a news conference Saturday. She called it "one of the most chilling plots imaginable."
Three of the men are under arrest -- one in Brooklyn and two in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago -- and officials are seeking a fourth in Trinidad. The arrests were made, authorities said, because they felt they had gathered enough evidence, including numerous audio recordings, to successfully prosecute the suspects.
According to court papers, Russell Defreitas, 63, the Brooklyn man arrested, came up with the bombing plot during his years working at the airport. He told an FBI informant that he had seen "military parts being shipped to Israel, including missiles that he felt would be used to kill Muslims." As a result, Defreitas said he wanted to do something to strike back.
Defreitas, a U.S. citizen and a native of Guyana, later told the informant that when he used to work at Kennedy, "these things used to come into my brain -- well, I could blow this place up. ... And I would say, if I could get a rocket, then I could do a hit."
Defreitas thought that destroying Kennedy Airport in particular would hurt Americans and the U.S. economy alike, according to the court complaint.
"Anytime you hit Kennedy, it is the most hurtful thing to the United States," Defreitas allegedly told the informant during one of the four trips the two took to the airport this past January to conduct video and photo surveillance. "If you hit that, this whole country will be in mourning."
Defreitas also thought that targeting the pipeline at the airport would destroy the residential Queens neighborhoods bordering Kennedy, authorities said.
The alleged plot, which authorities had been monitoring for about 18 months, involved men with connections in Guyana and Trinidad. Defreitas and the informant also made a number of trips to the two Caribbean countries, leaving law enforcement officials to claim that there is a new region of the world to be mindful of for terrorism threats.
"This latest plot was at once different and similar to what we have seen before," said New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. "Different in its distinct ties to the Caribbean, a region that is rarely thought of in terms of terrorism but of increasing concern to us as a crucible in the foment of Islamic radicalism."
Yet despite the international scope, Kelly pointed out that New York City remained at the heart of terrorism threats.
"If we learned anything from this latest plot, it's that they keep coming back to New York," he said.
NYPD patroled pipeline
According to Kelly, when his department first learned of the plot, its counterterrorism division conducted a survey of the pipeline and its helicopters and boats began regular patrols of it.
Authorities said the pipeline is part of the Buckeye Pipeline system, which originates in the Upper Midwest and distributes fuel and other petroleum products to various sites in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens, including Kennedy and LaGuardia airports.
Buckeye spokesman Roy Haase declined to discuss details of the plot or the security measures of the company.
"There was a time when we would brag about our safety and security features, but we would not do that now, for fear we would be undermining them," Haase said.
Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline expert and president of Accufacts Inc., an energy consulting firm that focuses on pipelines and tank farms, said a pipeline explosion would be "restricted" and would not travel up and down the line.
"That doesn't mean wackos out there can't do damage and cause a fire, but those explosions and fires are going to be fairly restricted," Kuprewicz said.
The plot was unveiled Saturday after authorities swooped in to make arrests in Brooklyn, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Agents from the FBI Joint Terrorist Task Force arrested Defreitas in Brooklyn late Friday night as he was leaving the Lindenwood Diner on Linden Boulevard in Brooklyn.
Under arrest in Trinidad are Abdul Kadir, a citizen of Guyana who authorities said has served as a member of the Guyanese parliament, and Kareem Ibrahim, a citizen of Trinidad. U.S. authorities said they will seek to have Kadir and Ibrahim extradited to the United States.
A fourth defendant, Abdel Nur, a citizen of Guyana, is being sought in Trinidad. If convicted of conspiring to attack Kennedy Airport, each of the defendants faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
A federal judge yesterday ordered Defreitas held at least until Wednesday, when he is scheduled for a bail hearing.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Knox told the judge, "This defendant is a self-proclaimed brainchild of an elaborate plot to blow up JFK Airport."
Kelly said Defreitas last worked at Kennedy in 1995 as a baggage handler with a subsidiary of Evergreen International Airlines Inc., an airline services and cargo company based in McMinnville, Ore. Kelly said Defreitas was unemployed and lived alone.
The official complaint against the four said the plotting began in January 2006 and also included plans to destroy the control tower at the airport.
Kennedy is one of the most important international gateways in the United States and is the country's eighth busiest airport, boasting more than 1,000 flights daily and 45 million passengers annually.
Tip from drug trafficker
Authorities were tipped to the plot by a confidential informant, a convicted drug trafficker who has been working with law enforcement since 2004, according to the complaint. Defreitas had mentioned in conversations with the informant in Brooklyn last August that he had a "vision" of something that would dwarf the 9/11 attacks, the complaint says, and invited the source to join the plotters.
"Even the twin towers can't touch it," Defreitas allegedly said in comparing the Sept. 11 to the airport plot.
Authorities said the alleged plotters "tapped into an international network of Muslim extremists from the United States, Guyana, and Trinidad" for knowledge and expertise to develop and plan the plot "and obtain operational support and capability to carry it out."
They said the conspirators in Guyana dispatched Defreitas to conduct video and photo surveillance of Kennedy Airport. "During the surveillance and using his knowledge of airport operations from his prior employment, Defreitas identified targets and escape routes and assessed airport security," authorities charged.
They said the defendants also obtained satellite photographs of the airport from the Internet and traveled frequently from the United States to Guyana and Trinidad to discuss their plans and solicit financial and technical assistance of others, including what were described as "radical groups in South America and the Caribbean."
One of the groups that the defendants were seeking help from was the Jamaat al Muslimeen, which is responsible for a deadly coup attempt in Trinidad in 1990, authorities said. Kadir and Nur allegedly had ties to the group's leadership.
"The defendants are charged with conspiring to bomb one of the busiest airports in the United States, located in one of the most densely populated areas in the northeast," Mauskopf said. "Had the plot been carried out, it could have resulted in unfathomable damage, deaths, and destruction."
Matthew Chayes, Emerson Clarridge and staff writers Rocco Parascandola and Andrew Strickler contributed to this story, which was supplemented with Associated Press reports.
A potential threat seen in America's backyardOfficials think members of an extremist network in the Caribbean were part of the alleged plot.
By Josh Meyer
June 3, 2007
WASHINGTON — Even if terrorism suspect Russell Defreitas were no more than an angry man with vague notions of a spectacular attack, he was able to tap into a network of Islamic extremists in the Caribbean — potentially dangerous and right in the backyard of the United States, authorities said Saturday.
It was Defreitas' alleged ties to that network, based primarily in Trinidad and Guyana, that had the FBI and other federal authorities so concerned as they clandestinely monitored his activities over the last 18 months, law enforcement officials familiar with the ongoing investigation said.
The FBI also believes that at least several militants from this loosely configured extremist network were involved in the alleged plot to blow up buildings, fuel tanks and pipelines at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. They remain at large and are extremely dangerous, said a federal law enforcement official.
"That is what is most significant about this case. It demonstrates the evolving nature of the threat and how we need to be looking at areas of the world that have not been viewed by the general public as a terror threat," the official said. "It shows that the threat can come from anywhere. It is not just limited to the Middle East or South Asia."
At a news conference to announce the arrest of Defreitas and two other suspects, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly agreed. "This is an area in which we have growing concern, and that I think requires a lot more focus," he said.
Guyana is in South America, and Trinidad is nearby in the Caribbean.
Authorities said Saturday that Defreitas and several suspected associates from Guyana and Trinidad were never close to obtaining explosives or taking any concrete steps to make their plot a reality.
But they said some of the men whom Defreitas linked up with were militants or associates of militants. At least two were alleged to be longtime associates of Trinidad-based radical group Jamaat al Muslimeen.
The FBI and CIA have closely monitored the group since at least 1990, when it tried to overthrow the government of Trinidad and Tobago and replace it with one based on Islamic law.
Defreitas and some of the other men charged in the alleged conspiracy were in Trinidad trying to meet Jamaat al Muslimeen leader Yasin Abu Bakr last month, perhaps to seek financing and approval, according to the federal law enforcement official. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the ongoing investigation.
In recent years, JAM has allegedly engaged in kidnappings, slayings, drug and weapons trafficking, and other illegal activities that have ratcheted up the concerns of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials.
Authorities say they are monitoring JAM members who have moved to New York and established criminal ties to associates back home.
Since Sept. 11, U.S. officials also have become alarmed by the presence of other suspected extremists on the islands, including some from Al Qaeda.
Suspected Al Qaeda operative Adnan el Shukrijumah reportedly has visited Trinidad at least once since 2001 and met with suspected militants. Shukrijumah, who is among the most wanted suspected Al Qaeda members, also has some peripheral connections to Jamaat al Muslimeen, federal authorities told The Times. Shukrijumah has been sighted in Guyana, where he has family and associates, FBI officials said.
A senior FBI official confirmed that agents make frequent trips to Trinidad to hunt for Shukrijumah, his associates and other militants.
On Saturday, authorities said they had not found Defreitas and his alleged group of plotters to have connections to Shukrijumah or Al Qaeda. But they confirmed that they were aggressively investigating whether several of Defreitas' alleged associates had any connections to Islamic militants who use the islands as a base of operations to raise money, recruit members and plan operations.
A 33-page complaint unsealed Saturday describes some of those suspected connections, including a mosque in Brooklyn, several trips to Guyana and Trinidad, and contacts with JAM members.
The court documents name the suspects in the alleged plot as Defreitas, a U.S. citizen from Guyana; Kareem Ibrahim, a citizen of Trinidad; Abdul Kadir, a former member of Guyana's parliament; and Abdel Nur, also a citizen of Guyana.
According to the complaint, Defreitas boasted to an informant that he had been taught to make bombs in Guyana. In August 2006 he told the informant, who recorded numerous conversations, that he had linked up with half a dozen "brothers" from Guyana and Trinidad who "wanted to do something bigger than the World Trade Center."
Soon, the informant and Defreitas were meeting in Guyana with a man identified in the complaint as Individual A and other men, to discuss the plot.
Individual A also told the informant that he and his associates were working on two plans — one to smuggle individuals, including extremists from Asia into the United States by way of Guyana, "and a second to attack the United States where it would inflict the most harm," the document said. The men allegedly had considered blowing up U.S. helicopters parked at the Guyanese Airport for an air show.
By February, the complaint says, Defreitas was determined to present the plot to the JAM leader and contacted several associates in Guyana to make that happen. Soon, Kadir was brought in, because he "had connections with militants in the Middle East and South America," the complaint quotes another co-conspirator as saying.
Kadir "expressed interest" in the plot and contacted other associates, the complaint alleges. By March, Kadir had volunteered to take Defreitas and the informant to meet the JAM leader, and dispatched an associate to travel to Trinidad to lay the groundwork.
The meeting was set for mid-May, but Kadir backed off and arranged to have associates take the two men to the meeting, according to the complaint. On May 22, the two men traveled to a JAM compound and met Nur, who said he had discussed the plot with the JAM leader. Nur said a meeting with JAM would take place after background checks on Defreitas and the informant, the complaint says.
Before that meeting could take place, Trinidad authorities arrested Kadir, prompting the FBI to take Defreitas into custody.
On Saturday, the federal law enforcement official said the abrupt arrests had cut short a valuable intelligence gathering effort aimed at unraveling a network of Caribbean criminals and possible terrorists.
"They were trying to meet the leadership" of JAM, the official said. "And that's when they were taken down."