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Queens Chronicle

Kennedy Airport: Target For Terror

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Posted: Thursday, June 7, 2007 12:00 am

The fourth and final suspect in what authorities have called a homegrown terrorism plot to detonate fuel conduits leading into Kennedy Airport surrendered to police in Trinidad, after a friend refused to shelter the fugitive at his home.

After turning himself in Tuesday morning, police transferred Abdul Nur, 57, to their headquarters in the capital, Port of Spain, where two other suspects in the case are also being held.

“It’s a conspiracy,” Nur told reporters, as police escorted him in handcuffs from a preliminary court hearing. “It was a setup.”

Nur is one of four men charged last weekend in a terrorism plot allegedly targeting the massive Buckeye pipeline that delivers fuel to Kennedy Airport. The Buckeye network stretches from Linden, N.J., through Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens, providing the city with roughly 8 million gallons of jet fuel and petroleum each day. It runs through large swaths of Howard Beach, Ridgewood, Maspeth, Sunnyside and Astoria.

According to federal authorities, the plot was intended to result in millions of dollars in infrastructure damage and thousands of deaths. The suspects had hoped to ignite an explosion at the airport that, in theory, would spread along the 40-mile pipeline — destroying innumerable homes and businesses across the city, officials said.

Police fingered Brooklyn resident Russell Defreitas, 63, a Guyanese citizen of the United States, as the plot’s criminal mastermind. He is a retired cargo handler at Kennedy Airport who reportedly frequented Jamaica and Cambria Heights to visit friends.

Defreitas was arrested at Brooklyn’s Lindenwood Diner last Friday and was arraigned in that borough’s federal court the following day. Also charged were Abdul Kadir, a former member of Guyana’s Parliament; Nur; and Kareem Ibrahim, who reportedly helped his fellow plotters seek the technical expertise and financial backing of an extremist Muslim group in Trinidad and Tobago called Jamaat al Muslimeen.

As of press time, Defreitas had not yet entered a plea — nor had the three suspects being detained in the Caribbean. The first two men to be arrested abroad, Kadir and Ibrahim, appeared in a Trinidadian court Monday, where attorneys indicated that they plan to fight an extradition request from the United States. That legal maneuver could end up delaying the Brooklyn court’s decisions in the case for months, federal officials explained. If convicted, all four men could face life in prison.

According to the government’s 33-page criminal complaint, Defreitas first sought help from the three Caribbean men in an effort to advance his nascent plot to wipe out New York City’s largest international transit hub. The co-conspirators allegedly envisioned an attack that would wreak havoc on the national economy and cause more loss of life than the Sept. 11 attacks.

But the plot never gained enough momentum to pose a serious threat, officials said. That’s partly because investigators were able to obtain more than enough evidence —over the course of an investigation that lasted 18 months —to nab the suspects before the scheme was fully hatched.

Investigators have also painted the ringleader, Defreitas, as more of a deluded religious zealot than a competent terrorist. There is even some question as to whether his plot would have moved past the planning stages, regardless of whether police had interceded.

But even if the plot had gotten off the ground, federal authorities believe that the group’s estimate of the carnage they could cause was vastly overstated. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said on Monday that while the extremists could have obtained enough explosives in South America to carry out the attack, the explosions would not have made it much farther than the airport perimeters, thanks to a system of pressure-sensitive valves that shut automatically during a disruption.

Nonetheless, NYPD officials remained vigilant throughout the federal investigation, Kelly added, by dispatching helicopter and boat patrols to monitor the pipeline.

“The fuel line is the feeding tube that nourishes national and international commerce through LaGuardia and JFK,” he said. “That’s why when we first learned of this plot, (we engaged) in directed patrols of the pipeline … in addition to other landmarks and potential targets.”

According to the complaint, investigators first learned of Defreitas’ plan in early 2006. Soon thereafter, FBI officials had convinced an informant, who had an extensive criminal background, to cooperate with them in exchange for pay and a reduced sentence. In July, that informant befriended Defreitas, who claimed to recognize the man from services at a Brooklyn mosque.

Over the next year, federal authorities deployed the informant to meet the suspect in various locations in Brooklyn and Queens to record conversations and obtain key information about the plot.

The informant’s work seemed to have produced results. Ever so gradually, Defreitas began revealing his plans for the attack. In their conversations, he also routinely expressed a bitter hatred for the United States — which he claimed grew slowly during his time as a cargo worker, watching weapons being shipped to Israel to be used to kill fellow Muslims.

Last fall, the informant joined Defreitas on a series of trips between New York and Guyana, where the duo met with Kadir, Ibrahim and Nur in hopes of wooing potential financiers — namely, Jamaat al Muslimeen.

That group gained notoriety when it staged a deadly coup attempt in 1990, but its criminal prestige deteriorated to the point where it is now considered little more than a street gang in Trinidad, authorities said.

Meanwhile, Defreitas’ plan was beginning to pick up steam back in Brooklyn and Queens. In January, Defreitas and the informant began scouting the airport, monitoring its fuel tanks and identifying weak points in the security perimeter. They also allegedly shot hours of video footage in hopes of convincing their overseas contacts of the plan’s feasibility.

Defreitas then traveled to Trinidad once more in May, in hopes of drumming up support for the plot at a meeting with Jamaat al Muslimeen — but later agreed to allow an intermediary to present the plans on his behalf.

On May 26, he returned to the states, where authorities finally nabbed him less than a week later.

“Had the plot … succeeded, the results would have been devastating — not only in terms of the physical damage to both person and property, but to our economy, as well,” said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown in a statement last Saturday.

Referring to the collaboration between federal and local law enforcement on the case, Brown added, “As a result of their efforts — and the efforts of those who work for and with them — I think it’s fair to say that today we can all breathe a little easier.”

Welcome to the discussion.