The terrorists who attacked the United States on Sept. 11 chose their targets with an understanding of their symbolism. The World Trade Center stood for America's economic power. The Pentagon represents this country's military might. And the apparent third target, the Capitol building, embodies American democracy.
Now, federal authorities say they foiled a plot by suspected terrorists who allegedly had another potent American symbol in mind. The authorities say four Muslim men were planning to blow up John F. Kennedy International Airport. One of the suspects allegedly said the airport was picked because of Americans' love for the slain president it was named for.
Three of the suspects are from Guyana. They're in custody. A fourth — from Trinidad — is being sought.
U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf didn't mince her words in announcing the break up of the alleged plot.
"The devastation that would be caused had this plot succeeded is just unthinkable," Mauskopf said.
The FBI says its investigation began in January 2006, when authorities say one of the four alleged plotters, Russell Defreitas, unknowingly approached an FBI informant. He wanted him to join a small group of Muslim men planning an attack in the United States. They allegedly wanted to rival the impact of Sept. 11. Defreitas allegedly joined forces with three others — Abdul Kadir, Kareem Ibrahim and Abdel Nur.
Defreitas was a baggage handler at JFK airport more than a decade ago. He is allegedly to have said he knew the airport like the back of his hand. FBI Agent Mark Mershon said the group was driven.
"This was a very determined group that engaged in precise and extensive surveillance, surveillance that included physical surveillance, photograph surveillance, video surveillance, and even the use of the Internet to obtain satellite photographs of the JFK facility," Mershon said.
JFK is one of the nation's busiest airports. The FBI alleges that Russell Defreitas said an attack on the airport would be hugely symbolic because of its name. Defreitas was arraigned in Brooklyn Saturday. The arrest of three men from Guyana indicates a new front in the war on terror may have opened up.
Law enforcement officials have been looking at the Middle East or Africa for freelancing jidhadists. Now, according to Bruce Riedel, a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution, the Carribbean should be part of that search, too.
"I think the bad news is that international jihad is here in our own hemisphere. [We] haven't seen it before. The U.K. saw evidence of it with the July 7, 2005 bombings. That suggests the jihad community has spread throughout the entire Islamic world," Riedel said.
And Riedel says maybe the United States, too. Last month, six Muslim men from New Jersey were arrested for allegedly planning an attack against soldiers at Fort Dix. In that case, one of the men delivered pizzas to the base. Those young men were arrested buying the guns they would need for the assault.
Riedel says the alleged plots may be part of a trend of jihadist groups springing up in the United States among young, disaffected Muslims.
Law enforcement officials describe the JFK plot as Fort Dix light: The men never got the explosives they needed, so they were less of a threat. But one law enforcement official says he's worried the face of jihad is changing and might now be next door.