FBI Foils Alleged Attack on JFK Airport

The FBI arrested three men on charges of plotting to attack New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. One was a former baggage handler at the airport. Another was a former member of parliament from Guyana in South America. And the third was from the Caribbean. A fourth is still at large.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Here's a little of the story behind some terror arrests over the weekend. The FBI arrested three men on charges of plotting to attack New York's Kennedy Airport. One was a former baggage handler at the airport, another was a former member of parliament from Guyana in South America. Yet another was from the Caribbean, and a fourth suspect is still at large. Now the government says it gathered information for many months about these suspects.

And NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is here to tell us how that process began. Let's work through this the way that investigators would have had to. What was the first thing they found?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, most sources tell me that the plot actually came to light through a CIA intercept from South America. They're not providing a lot of details about that, naturally, but there was some communication between the men and an extremist Islamist group called Jamaat al Muslimeen. And Jamaat al Muslimeen was behind the 1990 coup in Trinidad, and they're considered quite an extremist group.

INSKEEP: So you have people already in the United States, already hatching this plot and reaching out for support to an extremist group outside the country?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. And that's what's worrying investigators, is that they were actually going overseas to get expertise, and they were going overseas to get financing for a plot that was actually hatched here in the United States.

INSKEEP: Now how did they take this communication and turn it into something that could be a criminal case?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they had an informant that was inside. In that way, it's very much like the case we saw last month in Fort Dix. The informant actually was a twice convicted drug dealer, which is a little bit problematic, but he'd gotten inside this actual group and had taped them and videotaped them and got quite a bit - allegedly, got quite a bit of information from them.

INSKEEP: The FBI set up this guy and sent him in to…

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly.

INSKEEP: …recruited him and sent you pretend you're…

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, he happened to go to the same mosque as one of the men in Brooklyn, and they recognized each other, started talking. He was - this man, his name is Defreitas - Russell Defreitas, and he's sort of the mastermind behind this - or allegedly the mastermind. And they knew each other from the mosque and before you knew it, he was being brought into the plan.

INSKEEP: So the informant was, you said, videotaping, recording a bunch of things were happening?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Everything. They were in the car, actually casing John F.K. Airport, allegedly, and they had set up cameras and audio in the car so that they could record what they were doing.

INSKEEP: So how serious was this plot, really?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the FBI - my sources at the FBI are calling it like Fort Dix light. In other words, they didn't get explosives, but what's more troubling to them is that they were reaching out overseas to get expertise and financing. And that hasn't happened in one of these homegrown terrorism cases before.

INSKEEP: I want to just remind people, Fort Dix you're referring to, that's a military base in New Jersey where some people were allegedly plotting to kill U.S. service members. You're saying that plot was actually more advanced than the John F. Kennedy Airport plot?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. They'd actually been able to secure weapons in that plot.

INSKEEP: So how significant is it, then, that you had people in the United States - however early their plans may have been - people in the United States who came up with the plot themselves, including at least one American citizen? And then they were reaching overseas rather than getting instructions from overseas and the recruiting coming from there.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I think what they're finding more worrisome is that this is actually coming out of the Caribbean. And in the past, they've sort of been looking - authorities have been looking to Africa and the Middle East to find, you know, jihadists either coming over here or providing that sort of expertise or at least inspiration. They'd never thought about the Caribbean actually being a problem. Now, we actually have a problem within our hemisphere. And I think that's what people are going to start focusing on.

INSKEEP: Okay, Dina, thanks very much for coming in this morning.

TEMPLE-RASTON: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, who covers the FBI for NPR.

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Authorities: JFK Plot Suspects Turned to Caribbean Extremists

The alleged plot to bomb a fuel pipeline feeding New York's busiest airport uncovered over the weekend has sparked concern among authorities because the four suspects turned not to the Middle East or Africa, but to the Caribbean for support.

According to a federal complaint, the four accused Muslim men and an informant who helped crack the plot to attack John F. Kennedy International Airport visited a compound belonging to Jamaat al Muslimeen, a radical Islamic group known for launching a bloody 1990 coup attempt in Trinidad.

"These terrorists are in our own backyard," said Tom Corrigan, a former member of the FBI-New York Police Department Joint Terrorism Task Force. "They may have to reach out to people they don't necessarily trust, but they need - for guns, explosives, whatever."

Although Jamaat al Muslimeen did have contact with the men accused in the Kennedy airport plot, it is not accused of offering them any support. The group, whose followers are largely black converts to Sunni Islam, has faded as a political force in Trinidad as its leader, Yasin Abu Bakr, fends off criminal charges of inciting violence.

The Kennedy airport case and the recent plot to attack Fort Dix illustrate the need for inside information, Corrigan said. Six men were arrested in a plot to attack soldiers at the New Jersey military base after an FBI informant infiltrated that group.

"These have been two significant cases back-to-back where informants were used," he said.

In the Kennedy airport case, the informant was a twice-convicted drug dealer who found himself in the midst of a terrorist plot conceived as more devastating than the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. However, authorities say the plan was not well developed or far along.

"Would you like to die as a martyr?" the informant was asked, according to the indictment.

The man accused of being the mastermind, Russell Defreitas, 63, immigrated to the U.S. more than 30 years ago, but he told the federal informant that his feelings of disgust toward his adopted homeland had lingered for years.

"Before terrorism started in this country," he said in one secretly recorded conversation.

When Defreitas discussed his radical "brothers" with the informant, he made it clear they were not Arabs, but from Trinidad and Guyana.

The complaint made clear the informant had deeply infiltrated the group. Defreitas, a retired JFK airport cargo worker, made four reconnaissance missions to the airport, authorities said. They captured each one on audio and video equipment.

Kareem Ibrahim and another suspect, Abdul Kadir, were in custody in Trinidad awaiting extradition hearings. Officials identified Kadir as a former mayor of a Guyanese town and a member of the country's Parliament.

Authorities in Trinidad were still seeking a fourth suspect, Abdel Nur.

From NPR reports and the Associated Press

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