NEW YORK — Federal authorities said a plot by a suspected Muslim terrorist cell to blow up John F. Kennedy International Airport, its fuel tanks and a jet fuel artery could have caused “unthinkable” devastation.
But while pipeline and security experts agreed that such an attack would have crippled America’s economy, particularly the airline industry, they said it probably would not have led to significant loss of life as intended.
Authorities announced Saturday they had broken up the suspected terrorist cell, arresting three men, one of them a former member of Guyana’s parliament. A fourth man was being sought in Trinidad as part of the plot that authorities said they had been tracking for more than a year and was foiled in the planning stages.
“The devastation that would be caused had this plot succeeded is just unthinkable,” U.S. Attorney Roslynn R. Mauskopf said at a news conference, calling it “one of the most chilling plots imaginable.”
In an indictment charging the four men, one of them is quoted as saying the foiled plot would “cause greater destruction than in the Sept. 11 attacks,” destroying the airport, killing several thousand people and destroying parts of New York’s borough of Queens, where the pipeline runs underground.
One of the suspects, Russell Defreitas, a U.S. citizen native to Guyana and former JFK air cargo employee, said the airport named for the slain president was targeted because it is a symbol that would put “the whole country in mourning.”
“It’s like you can kill the man twice,” said Defreitas, 63, who first hatched his plan more than a decade ago when he worked as a cargo handler for a service company, according to the indictment.
Authorities said the men were motivated by hatred toward the United States and Israel. Defreitas was recorded saying he “wanted to do something to get those bastards” and he boasted that he had been taught to make bombs in Guyana.
Despite their efforts, the men never obtained any explosives, authorities said.
“Pulling off any bombing of this magnitude would not be easy in today’s environment,” former U.S. State Department counterterrorism expert Fred Burton said, but added it was difficult to determine without knowing all the facts of the case.
The pipeline, owned by Buckeye Pipeline Co., takes fuel from a facility in Linden, N.J., to the airport. Other lines service LaGuardia Airport and New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport.
Buckeye spokesman Roy Haase said the company had been informed of the threat from the beginning.
Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline expert and president of Accufacts Inc., an energy consulting firm that focuses on pipelines and tank farms, said the force of explosion would depend on the amount of fuel under pressure, but it would not travel up and down the line.
“That doesn’t mean wackos out there can’t do damage and cause a fire, but those explosions and fires are going to be fairly restricted,” he said.
John W. Magaw, a former head of the Transportation Security Administration, told The Washington Post that such an attack “may not cause a lot of deaths, but it would be spectacular and seen around world.”
He said it “could cripple the airlines.”
Fourth suspect sought
Since Defreitas retired from his job at the airport in 1995, security has significantly tightened and his knowledge of the operation was severely outdated.
He was arraigned Saturday in federal court in Brooklyn, where he was held pending a bail hearing Wednesday. His court-appointed lawyer told the judge that officials were not revealing the full story, according to published reports.
Two other men, Abdul Kadir of Guyana and Kareem Ibrahim of Trinidad, were in custody in Trinidad. A fourth man, Abdel Nur of Guyana, was still being sought in Trinidad.
Trevor Paul, the top police official in Trinidad and Tobago, a twin-island nation off Venezuela’s coast, said Kadir and Ibrahim would likely be extradited to the U.S. after court hearings in Trinidad.
Authorities said Kadir and Nur were longtime associates of a Trinidadian radical Muslim group, Jamaat al Muslimeen, which launched an unsuccessful rebellion in 1990 that left 24 dead.
Phone calls to Yasin Abu Bakr, the radical group’s leader, went unanswered Saturday.
Kadir, a member of Parliament in Guyana until last year, was arrested in Trinidad for attempting to secure money for “terrorist operations,” according to a Guyanese police commander who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Wife defends suspect
Isha Kadir, the Guyanese suspect’s wife, said her husband flew from Guyana to Trinidad on Thursday. She said he was arrested Friday as he was boarding a flight from Trinidad to Venezuela, where he planned to pick up a travel visa to attend an Islamic religious conference in Iran.
“We have no interest in blowing up anything in the U.S.,” she said Saturday from the couple’s home in Guyana. “We have relatives in the U.S.”
The U.S. Joint Terrorism Task Force recorded and surveilled the men, learning that Defreitas drove around and videotaped JFK four times in January.
When Defreitas returned from Guyana in February, U.S. customs officials searched his belongings and found Kadir’s name and telephone number in Defreitas’ address book. At that time, Defreitas told an informant he was suspicious the U.S. government was aware of the plot.
Authorities decided to pounce after Defreitas said on May 27 that he was happy to see that the plan, code named “chicken farm,” was moving forward, according to the criminal complaint.
Defreitas was nabbed Friday night walking out of a Brooklyn diner.
The Associated Press and NBC News' Pete Williams contributed to this story.