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Jury Deliberating in JFK Airport Bomb Plot

In a terrorism case more about intent than ability, a jury begins deliberating Tuesday whether two men are guilty or innocent of conspiring to blow up gas tanks and fuel lines at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Three years after their arrest, and after four weeks of testimony and closing arguments Monday, the trial of Russell Defreitas and Abdul Kadir enters its final stage in Brooklyn Federal Court.

"The two men at that table are being called to account, because in 2007 they had a terrible plan," assistant United States Attorney Zainab Ahmad told the jury.

Ahmad said the defendants were "eager and willing participants" in a plot that sought to damage the economy and kill people as an act of revenge in part for the U.S. treatment of Muslims worldwide.
Both defendants are Muslim converts.

She labeled Defreitas, 66, a naturalized U.S. Citizen from Guyana and one-time cargo handler at the airport 20 years ago, a "classic homegrown extremist." An NYPD detective testified that Defreitas admitted in a post-arrest interrogation that the plot was his idea.

Defreitas was heard on about 100 hours of recordings, captured by a government informant and telephone wiretaps, discussing the plot.

"Allah put me in the airport maybe for this purpose," Defreitas said on a recording played for the jury. "The whole of JFK will go up in smoke."

From the beginning of the trial, Defreitas' defense team tried to portray his voluminous comments as empty, boastful talk.

"Russell Defreitas is a man with a small mind, a big mouth, and an ugly imagination, but those are character flaws, not crimes" defense attorney Mildred Whelan told the jury. "He talks about death and destruction like a 10 year old boy who's played too many video games."

"That is ridiculous," prosecutor Ahmad said, calling Defreitas on tape as "calm, cool, collected, and deadly serious."

The alleged plot stretched to the Caribbean, where Defreitas and the government informant, identified at trial as convicted drug trafficker Steven Francis, traveled allegedly to recruit other conspirators.

This included Kadir, 58, who served in the parliament of Guyana for five years and was once mayor of the country's second largest city. Two other men were originally charged in the terror conspiracy; one pleaded guilty to lesser charges, and the other is due to be tried separately.

In a surprise of the trial, the government highlighted Kadir's ties to Iran. He was arrested boarding a flight bound for Iran in June 2007, and had traveled there twice before. Kadir had a sermon by Ayatollah Khomeni on his computer that referred to the "earth-devouring America" as the "enemy" and had written to an Iranian implicated in a lethal attack on a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in the 1980s.

But Kadir's defense team portrayed him as merely exploiting the plotters in the hopes he could use plot money deposited in his bank account to fulfill a dream of building a local mosque. There was no evidence of any funds being transferred.

The alleged plotters were never accused of ties to any known terrorist group, but the government tried to show they sought backing from "seasoned terrorists" in three places -- Iran, al Qaeda, an Islamist group in Trinidad and Tobago.

Prosecutors said the defendants sought to locate a "most wanted" al Qaeda operative, Adnan Shukrijumah, thought to be hiding out in the Caribbean in 2006-2007.

Other than four trips by Defreitas - driven by Francis, using a camera the informant purchased and showed him how to use - to videotape exteriors of the airport and its fuel tank farm, the plot never progressed very far.

"Russell Defreitas can't mastermind his way out of an on-off switch on a video camera," defense attorney Whelan said. She said her client is "a guppy the government is trying to pass off as a shark."

Under conspiracy law, the fact that the plot was nowhere close to succeeding does not matter. "The agreement is the crime," prosecutor Ahmad told the jury. "The most powerful evidence in this case comes from their own words."

Only Kadir, a civil engineer, testified at trial. On cross examination, he said he gave "my best advice" to Defreitas when he asked about how to carry out the bomb attack.

"Defreitas was determined and Kadir was committed to see this plot to fruition," Ahmad told the jury.

Kadir's defense attorney, Kafahni Nkrumah, told the jury Kadir "never assisted in advancing the objectives of the conspiracy." He said Kadir was only on the receiving end of phone calls and visits, declined to travel with his codefendants, and never came to New York. He said living his life around Shia Islam is no crime.

"We live in a dangerous world, but convicting an innocent man doesn't make us any safer," Nkrumah said.

The jury of seven men and five women has remained anonymous, as is typical in terrorism trials.

JFK airport sees 48 million passengers a year and generates $30 billion in revenue for New York City, the jury was told.

If convicted, Defreitas and Kadir, detained for the past three years, face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

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