(CBS) NEW YORK Russell Defreitas, a U.S. citizen native to Guyana and retired airport employee was the mastermind behind a plot to destroy John F. Kennedy International Airport, kill thousands of people and trigger an economic catastrophe by blowing up a jet fuel artery that runs through populous residential neighborhoods, authorities said Saturday.
Defreitas developed his hatred for America a decade ago while working as a cargo handler at JFK airport. While working at the airport, he said he saw military parts being shipped to Israel that he thought would be used to kill Muslims. Last August, he began planning an attack along with three other Muslim men, one of which was an FBI informant.
The FBI says they have recorded several conversations between the two during an 18-month investigation. Sources tell CBS 2 that on Friday, Defreitas told the informant he believed the authorities may be on to him, prompting the feds to move in.
Three of the men were arrested and one was being sought in Trinidad on Saturday. In an indictment charging the four men, one of them is quoted as saying the plot would “cause greater destruction than in the Sept. 11 attacks.”
Authorities said all four were motivated by a pattern of hatred toward the U.S., Israel and the West.
Defreitas said the airport was a symbol that would put “the whole country in mourning.”
“Anytime you hit Kennedy, it is the most hurtful thing to the United States,” he said on a recording made by a police informant. “They love John F. Kennedy like he’s the man … It’s like you can kill the man twice.”
The plot, which the men code-named “Chicken Farm,” never got past the planning stages, authorities said.
“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.”
Despite their “extraordinary efforts,” the men never obtained any explosives, authorities said.
Mayor Bloomberg was briefed about the plot, and issued this statement:
"The fact that plotters conspired to plan an attack on John F. Kennedy Airport is another reminder that in today's world we face constant threats from people who want to take away our freedoms and destroy our way of life. Working together, NYPD and other local and federal law enforcement agencies have been on top of this unfolding plot for months, and they deserve our thanks and praise. This plot was only in its planning stages and at no point was anyone in imminent danger. New Yorkers should be comforted that the layers of safety provided by counter terrorism officials stopped these individuals before they could do any harm to our way of life."
“Pulling off any bombing of this magnitude would not be easy in today’s environment,” said Former U.S. State Department counterterrorism expert Fred Burton, though he added that it was difficult to determine the severity of the threat without knowing all the facts of the case.
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 any 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.
Since Defreitas has worked at the airport, security has tightened, and his knowledge of the operation was severely outdated.
The men tried to reach out to a Trinidadian radical Muslim group, Jamaat al Muslimeen, which launched an unsuccessful rebellion in 1990 that left 24 dead, according to the indictment.
Defreitas, a 63-year-old Brooklyn resident, first hatched his plan more than a decade ago when he worked as a cargo handler for a service company, according to the indictment. He 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.
He was arraigned Saturday afternoon in federal court and was to be held pending a bail hearing scheduled for Wednesday, prosecutors said. He did not enter a plea at the arraignment.
His court-appointed lawyer, Drew Carter, reportedly told Magistrate Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto that officials’ version of events was only part of the story. He said he would detail what he meant at trial.
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. He said he could not disclose whether the suspects were believed to be in Trinidad seeking support from Jamaat al Muslimeen.
Phone calls to Yasin Abu Bakr, the radical group’s leader, went unanswered Saturday.
The suspects believed explosives could ignite the pipeline at JFK and destroy the airport and parts of Queens, where the line runs underground, according to the indictment.
The U.S. Joint Terrorism Task Force recorded and surveilled the men, learning that Defreitas drove around and videotaped JFK on four occasions this past 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. The government moved to foil the plot as Defreitas told an informant he was suspicious authorities knew about the plan.
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 Newark Liberty International Airport.
Defreitas, who retired from his job at JFK in 1995, was nabbed Friday night walking out of a Brooklyn diner.
A friend said Defreitas was not a danger, but was just a “two-bit hustler” who was always thinking up ways to make money.
“He’s not that type of person,” Trevor Watts told The New York Times after learning of his friend’s arrest. “He’s not smart enough.”
Kadir, a former member of Parliament in Guyana, was arrested in Trinidad for attempting to secure money for “terrorist operations,” according to a Guyanese police commander who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Kadir left his position in Parliament last year. Muslims make up about 9 percent of the former Dutch and British colony’s 770,000 population, mostly from the Sunni sect.
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, which neighbors Venezuela on South America’s northern coast. “We have relatives in the U.S.”
Investigators received information about the plot in January 2006, according to the indictment.
Buckeye spokesman Roy Haase said the company, which moves petroleum through pipelines in a number of states, had been informed of the threat from the beginning, but he declined to detail the company’s security measures.
“Given the nature of Buckeye business and the importance of this transportation network, we have an intense and ongoing communications relationship with the Port Authority, the New York City fire and police departments, the federal Department of Homeland Security and the FBI,” he said.
JFK and the area’s other airports remained at a heightened state of alert Saturday, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said.
Jeanie Mamo, a spokeswoman for the White House, said President Bush had been briefed and updated regularly as the investigation into the plot progressed.
The arrests mark the latest in a series of alleged homegrown terrorism plots targeting high-profile American landmarks.
A year ago, seven men were arrested in what officials called the early stages of a plot to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago and destroy FBI offices and other buildings.
A month later, authorities broke up a plot to bomb underwater New York City train tunnels to flood lower Manhattan.
And six people were arrested a month ago in an alleged plot to unleash a bloody rampage on Fort Dix in New Jersey.