JFK Airport Plotter Gets Life for Failed Attack

Russell Defreitas is seen in this court sketch from 2010 when he was convicted of hatching a plot to attack John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Christine Cornell for CBS News

NEW YORK - An aging former cargo handler was sentenced to life in prison on Thursday for hatching a plot to make John F. Kennedy International Airport go "up in smoke" by attacking jet fuel supplies with the help of a notorious al Qaeda explosives expert.

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Russell Defreitas and another man had been convicted last year of multiple conspiracy counts in a failed scheme that was infiltrated by a government informant.

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At trial, jurors heard tapes recorded by the informant in which Defreitas, 67, ranted about wanting to avenge U.S. mistreatment of Muslims across the globe.

"Not only was the plot his idea, he explained that he'd been thinking about for years," Assistant U.S. Attorney Marshall Miller said Thursday at the sentencing in federal court in Brooklyn.

CBS News' Phil Hirschkorn reports that the case was noteworthy as one of the many "homegrown" and informant-affected plots since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks as well as one of a dozen attempted terror attacks on New York City, according to the tab maintained by New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.

The defense had sought a 15-year term for Defreitas, arguing in court papers that he and his cohorts were harmless trash talkers who were "egged on" by the informant. The papers portrayed the defendant as broken-down, illiterate and delusional.

His "stories about how they would accomplish the plot became more and more ridiculous until they finally rose to the level of the absurd, with Mr. Defreitas' scheme to send 'ninjas' in to attack the airport," the defense papers said.

The plotters were "clearly not operational," defense attorney Mildred Whalen said Thursday. Defreitas, she added, "was a boastful man and talked a good game, but when push came to shove, he wasn't the person doing this."

U.S. District Judge Dora Irizarry disagreed, saying Defreitas' own words proved he was dangerous. She cited a recording of him predicting, "The whole of Kennedy will go up in smoke."

Said the judge: "The bottom line is this was his baby. This was his plan."

The defendant appeared determined to carry out the attack "whether the government was involved or not," she added before imposing the life term.

Defreitas, who declined to speak, had no visible reaction to the sentence.

Defreitas was among four men charged in the plot. Co-defendant Abdel Kadir, an engineer and former member of Guyana's parliament, was sentenced in December to life in prison; Abdel Nur was sentenced to 15 years in prison; and Kareem Ibrahim is awaiting trial.

At the trial for Kadir and Defreitas, prosecutors said the pair wanted to kill thousands of people and cripple the American economy by using explosives to blow up the fuel tanks and the underground pipelines that run through an adjacent Queens neighborhood.

The government relied heavily on the informant's secret recordings, including some that captured Defreitas bragging about his inside knowledge of Kennedy Airport and its vulnerabilities.

"For years, I've been watching them," he said of the fuel tanks while on a reconnaissance mission with the informant.

In other tapes, Defreitas spoke of punishing the United States with an attack that would "dwarf 9/11."

Defreitas and the informant traveled to Guyana to try to meet with Kadir and show him homemade videotapes of the airport's so-called fuel farms. The plotters also discussed reaching out to Adnam Shukrijumah, an al Qaeda member and explosives expert who was believed to be hiding out in the Caribbean at the time.

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Shukrijumah, an FBI most-wanted terrorist, has been indicted on federal charges he was involved in a failed plot to attack the New York City subway system with suicide bombers.