N.Y. Airport Target of Plot, Officials Say

Mark J. Mershon from the FBI, left, Queens County District Attorney Richard Brown, center, and U.S. Attorney Roslynn R. Mauskopf, confer after an FBI news conference in New York, Saturday, June 2, 2007. Three people were arrested and one other was being sought Saturday in connection to a plan to set off explosives in a fuel line that feeds John F. Kennedy International Airport and runs through residential neighborhoods, officials close to the investigation said. (AP Photo/John Marshall Mantel)
Mark J. Mershon from the FBI, left, Queens County District Attorney Richard Brown, center, and U.S. Attorney Roslynn R. Mauskopf, confer after an FBI news conference in New York, Saturday, June 2, 2007. Three people were arrested and one other was being sought Saturday in connection to a plan to set off explosives in a fuel line that feeds John F. Kennedy International Airport and runs through residential neighborhoods, officials close to the investigation said. (AP Photo/John Marshall Mantel) (John Marshall Mantel - AP)

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By Anthony Faiola and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 3, 2007

NEW YORK, June 2 -- Authorities said Saturday that they had broken up an alleged terrorist plot to bomb aviation fuel tanks and pipelines at John F. Kennedy International Airport, arresting a former airport worker and two other men with links to Islamic extremists in South America and the Caribbean.

The lone U.S. resident and alleged leader of the conspiracy, Russell Defreitas, 63, a native of the small South American nation of Guyana, was arrested in Brooklyn. Two others -- one of them a former member of parliament and religious leader in Guyana -- were being held abroad, and a fourth man was being sought by authorities overseas.

The plot did not get beyond the planning stages and had no apparent direct links to al-Qaeda or other Middle Eastern terrorist groups, according to officials and documents released Saturday. But officials said its international scope and the sensitive nature of the target -- one of the United States' busiest airports and a key lifeline between New York and cities worldwide -- caused them to move quickly to secure the arrests.

U.S. Attorney Roslynn R. Mauskopf described the plan at a news conference here Saturday as "one of the most chilling plots imaginable," adding that "the devastation that would be caused had this plot succeeded is just unthinkable." The complaint charging the four men quotes one predicting that the attack would cause "greater destruction than in the Sept. 11 attacks."

Authorities noted that the cell had not targeted passenger terminals or airplanes. Officials and airport security experts said that an explosion at the cell's primary targets -- JFK's fuel tanks and a small segment of the 40-mile petroleum pipeline that supplies the airport -- probably would have resulted in major damage but relatively limited loss of life.

Nonetheless, the charges provided yet more evidence of the threat posed by homegrown terrorists, embittered extremists who hail from the Middle East or, in this case, from the Caribbean and northeastern South America. Less than a month ago, authorities announced that they had broken up a cell of Muslim militants, most of them ethnic Albanians, who were developing a plot to attack soldiers at New Jersey's Fort Dix.

The new case, officials say, also shows how extremists in the United States can use the Internet to reach out for help, domestically and internationally, to turn their rage into an assault.

"The defendants sought to combine an insider's knowledge of JFK airport with the assistance of Islamic radicals in the Caribbean to produce an attack that they boasted would be . . . devastating," Kenneth L. Wainstein, assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement.

For New York, the epicenter of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the arrests were another reminder that the city appears to remain the primary U.S. target for terrorist attacks.

The alleged conspirators, authorities said, were initially detected via information gathered by the CIA in South America and the Caribbean, home to Jamaat Al Muslimeen, an extremist Black Muslim group that tried to overthrow the Trinidadian government in 1990.

That led federal and local authorities in the New York region to launch a 16-month sting operation focused on the activities of Defreitas, a naturalized American citizen who worked for years for a small airline company based at JFK. According to the complaint, he appeared to harbor deep resentment against the United States that dated to before the 2001 attacks.

The document alleges that he surveilled the airport four times in January, focusing on fuel tanks, noting security precautions and reviewing an escape plan. What Defreitas apparently did not know was that one of the plotters with him much of the time was a law enforcement informant who recorded much of what he said.


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