JFK Terror Plot Informant Crucial To Case

Storage tanks on the grounds of John F. Kennedy Airport, New York, photo, 2007/6/3
AP
The informant who helped break up the plot to bomb the jet fuel pipeline that supplies John F. Kennedy Airport was so convincing that the suspects gave him unfettered access to their operation, federal authorities said.

He made several overseas trips to discuss the plot, even visiting a radical Muslim group's compound in Trinidad. Perhaps more important, the suspects were convinced he was guided by a higher purpose: The ringleader believed the informant "had been sent by Allah to be the one" to pull off the bombing, according to a federal complaint.

The case demonstrated the growing importance of informants in the war on terrorism, particularly as smaller radical groups become more aggressive.

On Monday, the longtime leader of the Trinidadian Muslim group denied it had any connection to the plot. "I know nothing about these men and I have nothing to do with whatever they are being charged for," Yasin Abu Bakr, the leader of Jamaat al Muslimeen, told The Associated Press.

Bakr declined to say whether he knew any of the suspects. U.S. authorities said the alleged plotters traveled to Trinidad to secure support from Jamaat al Muslimeen.

The accused mastermind, Russell Defreitas, 63, is now in custody in New York, where he will have a bail hearing on Wednesday.

But two other suspects, Kareem Ibrahim and Abdul Kadir, a former member of Guyana's Parliament, will fight extradition to the United States, their lawyer, Rajid Persad, told a Trinidadian court on Monday. The two made their initial court appearance there on one count each of conspiracy to commit a terrorist act against the government of the United States. The judge set a bail hearing for next Monday and an extradition hearing on Aug. 2.

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

While the intent to inflict major damage was apparent, CBS News terrorism consultant Paul Kurtz said the men were "a long way off from actually being able to carry out the plot."

Tom Corrigan, a former member of the FBI-New York Police Department Joint Terrorism Task Force, said the Kennedy Airport case and the recent plot to attack Fort Dix illustrated the need for inside information. 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," Corrigan said. "These terrorists are in our own backyard. They may have to reach out to people they don't necessarily trust, but they need — for guns, explosives, whatever."

Without informants, Corrigan said, investigators are often left with little more than educated guesswork.

"In most cases, you can't get from A to B without an informant," said the ex-NYPD detective. "Most times when an informant tells you what is going on, speculation becomes reality. What an investigator thought or presumed is happening is (often) really happening."

A senior federal official told CBS News on Sunday the U.S. government considered the JFK cell operational "in the sense that they were taking affirmative steps to move forward with the planning" — undertaking surveillance, seeking to obtain funding — "but not in the sense that they had the explosives already or had selected a date to strike."

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 attacks.

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

He unhesitatingly replied yes and soon was making surveillance trips around the airport — the "chicken farm," as the planners dubbed their target.

Authorities said the JFK scheme was a demonstration of homegrown terrorism. 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. Defreitas, in custody Sunday pending a bail hearing, was arrested Friday night outside Brooklyn's Lindenwood Diner — a spot once bugged by federal officials tracking former Gambino family boss John A. "Junior" Gotti.

The four Muslim men accused in the JFK plot didn't turn to Pakistan, Iran or Afghanistan for support after targeting the airport, home to an average of 1,000 daily flights and 45 million passengers annually.

Instead, according to a federal complaint, the informant, Ibrahim and Defreitas visited a compound belonging to Jamaat al Muslimeen, known for launching a bloody 1990 coup attempt in Trinidad that involved taking the prime minister and his Cabinet hostage and left 24 people dead.

Though 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 rebels in the 1990 raid on Parliament surrendered and were pardoned.

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 how deeply the informant had infiltrated the small band of would-be terrorists. While Defreitas, a retired JFK Airport cargo worker, made four reconnaissance missions to the airport with the informant, federal authorities captured each one on audio and video equipment.

Last year, informants played a major role in two other terror cases. In June 2006, an informant posing as an al Qaeda operative helped bring down a plot to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago. Five of the seven men arrested in that alleged terrorist group were U.S. citizens.

In May 2006, an NYPD informant's testimony led to the conviction of a man plotting to blow up the busy Herald Square subway station in midtown Manhattan.