LIANE HANSEN, host:
The terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11th chose their targets with an understanding of their symbolism - the World Trade Center stood for America's economic power; the Pentagon represented 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 icon 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.
NPR's FBI correspondent Dina Temple-Raston has details.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf didn't mince her words in announcing the breakup of the alleged plot.
Ms. ROSLYNN MAUSKOPF (United States Attorney): The devastation that would be caused had this plot succeeded is just unthinkable.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI says its investigation began in January 2006. That's 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 U.S. They allegedly wanted to rival the impact of 9/11. 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's alleged to have said he knew the airport like the back of his hand. FBI Agent Mark Mershon said the group was driven.
Mr. MARK MERSHON (Agent, Federal Bureau of Investigation): This is a very determined group that engaged in precise and extensive surveillance -surveillance that included physical surveillance, photographic surveillance, video surveillance, even the use of the Internet to obtain satellite photographs of the JFK facility.
TEMPLE-RASTON: 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 yesterday. But the arrest of the 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 jihadists. Now, according to Bruce Riedel, a terrorist expert at the Brookings Institution, the Caribbean could be part of that search, too.
Mr. BRUCE RIEDEL (Terrorist Expert, Brookings Institution): I think the bad news is that it looks like the international jihadist movement is now finding more adherence within our own hemisphere - in the small Muslim communities in the Caribbean and in South America. We haven't really seen much evidence of jihadist activities on those communities before.
The British found some evidence of it in the plots that took place in July 2005 in the Uni0ted Kingdom. But we haven't seen it here before in the United States, and that suggests that the global jihadist community continues to mature and spread throughout the entire Islamic world.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And Riedel says maybe in the U.S., too. Last month, six Muslim men from New Jersey were arrested for allegedly planning an attack against soldiers at Fort Dix. 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.
Mr. RIEDEL: Well, people in the FBI talk about Pepsi jihadism, which is jihadist groups that spring up in the United States among young, disaffected Muslims. It's a disturbing trend and it indicates that more and more - a small minority - and I want to emphasize - it's a very small minority of the American Muslim community is now open to the international jihadist idea, it will put us very much in a more difficult situation.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Law enforcement officials described the JFK plot as Fort Dix-like. 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 it might now be next door.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
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