Kennedy Airport: another phony terrorist plot


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

June 4, 2007

Papers Portray Plot as More Talk Than Action

The plot as painted by law enforcement officials was cataclysmic: A home-grown 
Islamic terrorist had in mind detonating fuel storage tanks and pipelines and 
setting fire to Kennedy International Airport, not to mention a substantial 
swath of Queens.

³Had the plot been carried out, it could have resulted in unfathomable damage, 
deaths and destruction,² Roslynn R. Mauskopf, the United States attorney in 
Brooklyn, said in a news release that announced charges against four men. She 
added at a news conference, ³The devastation that would be caused had this plot 
succeeded are just unthinkable.²

Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly then stepped to the lectern with a vision 
only a bit less grim.

³Once again, would-be terrorists have put New York City in their crosshairs,² he
said. Mr. Kelly said a disaster had been averted.

But the criminal complaint filed by the federal authorities against the four 
defendants in the case ‹ one of them, Abdel Nur, remained at large yesterday ‹ 
suggests a less than mature terror plan, a proposed effort longer on evil intent
than on operational capability.

(Ms. Mauskopf noted in her news release that the ³public was never at risk² and 
told reporters that law enforcement ³had stopped this plot long before it ever 
had a chance to be carried out.²)

At its heart was a 63-year-old retired airport cargo worker, Russell M. 
Defreitas, who the complaint says talked of his dreams of inflicting massive 
harm, but who appeared to possess little money, uncertain training and no known 
background in planning a terror attack.

³Capability low, intent very high,² a law enforcement official said of the 

Some law enforcement officials and engineers also dismissed the notion that the 
planned attack could have resulted in a catastrophic chain reaction; system 
safeguards, they said, would have stopped explosions from spreading.

The complaint, filed in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, also suggests that 
at least two of the suspects had some ambivalence. One of the men was game for 
bombing the airport but leery about killing masses of people, the complaint 
says. Another dropped out of the plot for a time to tend to his business.

The suspects had ties with a dangerous Islamic group that once engineered a 
deadly coup attempt in Trinidad and Tobago, which was approached about 
underwriting a plot, but in the end, the men decided to stop courting that group
and resolved to shop elsewhere overseas for financing.

No one would second-guess the authorities for pursuing and arresting suspected 
plotters. An enduring lesson that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have taught 
prosecutors and the Federal Bureau of Investigation is the danger of inaction.

But as with many post-9/11 terror plots, the line between terrible aspiration 
and reality can get lost in a murky haze.

In case after case, from what authorities said was a dirty bomber to the 
Lackawanna Six, federal prosecutors hail arrests of terrorists and disruptions 
of what they describe as sinister plots. But as these legal cases unfold, the 
true nature of the threats can come into question.

Ms. Mauskopf and Mr. Kelly declined yesterday to discuss their characterizations
of the airport case. Mark J. Mershon, assistant director in charge of the 
F.B.I.¹s New York office, also spoke at the news conference, and he said 
yesterday that his message was very clear:

³I believe I spoke the simple truth at the press conference: the ambitions were 
horrific, the capacities were very limited, but they kept trying. Their 
signature was their persistence.²

Neal R. Sonnett, a defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor who was chief of
the criminal division in the United States attorney¹s office in Miami, 
congratulated the F.B.I. for fine police work in what was clearly ³a 
prosecutable case.²

But he said: ³There unfortunately has been a tendency to shout too loudly about 
such cases.²

³It has a bit of the gang that couldn¹t shoot straight to it,² Mr. Sonnett said.
³It would have served the federal government well to say that.²

The seeming gap between the rhetoric at Saturday¹s news conference and the 
reality of the threat could reflect a change in approach among law enforcement 

By their nature, prosecutors prefer to wait until they have accumulated an 
overwhelming store of evidence. The characteristic tough prosecutorial language 
of the post-indictment news release reflects their certainty about their cases.

Now, prosecutors and F.B.I. agents find themselves pouncing sooner than in the 
past, the better to stamp out potential terror plots before there is a grave 
risk to life or property.

³The whole goal now is to get these plots at a very nascent stage ‹ and that 
means the evidence will always be more ambiguous,² said Andrew C. McCarthy, a 
former federal prosecutor who pursued terrorism cases in New York and helped 
investigate the Sept. 11 attacks.

³We now need to pay a lot more attention to people¹s aspirations to commit 
terror and worry less about how imminent the threat is.²

A reading of the criminal complaint makes clear why prosecutors and F.B.I. 
agents grew so alarmed as they learned of the ambitions ascribed to the 

One of the co-conspirators, identified in the complaint only as individual E, 
described himself as a patron of jihad and paid for some of Mr. Defreitas¹s 
travel expenses.

And Mr. Defreitas, in taped statements attributed to him, was unequivocal about 
his desire to kill many thousands of his fellow Americans.

But the same papers give reason for doubt about the competence of the suspects. 
The details tend to suggest a distance between Mr. Defreitas¹s dream and any 
nightmarish reality.

There is, too, the question of the role played by the unidentified undercover 
informant who befriended Mr. Defreitas.

The informant is a convicted drug trafficker, and his sentence is pending as 
part of his cooperation agreement with the federal government, said the 

It was to this informant, according to the authorities, that Mr. Defreitas first
confided his ³vision that would make the World Trade Center attack seem small.² 
The complaint notes that the defendant ³did not discuss the details.²

Mr. Defreitas and the informant drove out to the fuel tanks at night, conducting
surveillance, and made video recordings of Kennedy Airport and its buildings.

They also ³located satellite photographs of J.F.K.,² the complaint states, ³and 
sought expert advice, financing and explosives.²

But the satellite photographs amount to images easily downloaded from Google 

A law enforcement official characterized the surveillance videos as 
³amateurish²; but he added that the material offered enough detail, taken 
together with the Google images, to at least help with planning.

The complaint also states that the men discussed ³escape routes² through local 
roads and highways.

Many of the plot¹s larger details are left to the imagination.

According to the complaint, one suspect discussed the need to disable an airport
control tower, the better to provide cover to destroy the fuel tanks.

Another problem is that none of the suspects appears to have planned or carried 
out any previous attacks.

Nor do the men appear to possess relevant military training.

One defendant, Abdul Kadir, is said to have warned the others that the Islamists
in Trinidad ³had their own rules of engagement and wanted to minimize the 
killing of innocents such as women and children.² He suggested an early-morning 
assault to take out buildings rather than people, the complaint says.

Other planners seem to come and go, and in the end, one of the men, Kareem 
Ibrahim, advises that he will present their terror plan to ³contacts overseas 
who may be interested in purchasing or funding it.²

But law enforcement officials say some caution is advised here. Terror plots, 
particularly those planned ad hoc by freelancers, tend to be messy affairs. 
There is no assurance that all the plotters share the qualms of a few. Nor is 
there any assurance an angry plotter might discard the collective long-term 
planning and strike alone quickly and violently.

³Even if he shoots up a terminal, it¹s a disaster,² said a city law enforcement 
official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic. ³At 
a certain point, once you¹re sure there isn¹t a larger Al Qaeda involvement, you
just move.²

An official in the Justice Department defended the way the case was presented to
the public, saying federal authorities offered a reasoned picture of the case 
and the threat. ³We repeatedly let people know there was not a threat to the 
airport and this was a plot that was nowhere near completion,² said the 
official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to 
address the issue. ³The documents speak for themselves.²

Mary Jo White, who was the United States attorney in Manhattan for nearly a 
decade and oversaw the successful prosecution of the first World Trade Center 
bombers in 1993 and the men who attacked the American embassies in Kenya and 
Tanzania in 1998, said the challenges to a prosecutor are significant.

³Obviously, when you speak about these plots, you don¹t want to scare the public
unnecessarily,² she said. ³But if we¹ve learned anything from 9/11 it is we 
should never again fail to take seriously the lower-level terrorist or wannabe 
terrorist or the most seemingly apocryphal plot, because they may well occur.²

But Mr. Sonnett, who also is a past president of the National Association of 
Criminal Defense Lawyers, noted that there is a broader risk in overstating the 
sophistication of a terror plot. At a time when many Americans live in justified
fear of an attack, the risk is that drumbeating creates a climate of fear and 
drives public policy.

³To the extent that you over-hype a case, you create fear and paranoia,² he 
said. ³It¹s very difficult for prosecutors and investigative agencies to remain 

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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