Two men were convicted Monday of plotting to blow up jet fuel tanks at John F. Kennedy International Airport, a terror plot that authorities said was meant to outdo the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and avenge perceived U.S. oppression of Muslims around the world.
A jury in Brooklyn federal court deliberated about five days before finding Russell Defreitas and Abdul Kadir guilty of multiple conspiracy charges. Kadir was acquitted of one charge, surveillance of mass transportation.
Defreitas, a former JFK cargo handler, and Kadir, once a member of Guyana’s parliament, were arrested in 2007 after an informant infiltrated the plot.
Prosecutors alleged that Defreitas, a 66-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen from Guyana, and Kadir, 58, 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. Authorities say the men sought the help of militant Muslims, including an al Qaeda operative, in Guyana.
Defreitas had videotaped the airport on four occasions in the presence of a government informant, reports CBS News investigative producer Phil Hirschkorn. Prosecutors portrayed him as the ringleader of the foiled plot.
The defendants wanted to set off an explosion “so massive … that it could be seen from far, far away,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Zainab Ahmad said in closing arguments.
Their vision prompted them to code name the plot “The Shining Light,” the prosecutor said.
Defense lawyers described their clients as clueless trash-talkers who were led astray by the informant, a convicted drug dealer.
Mildred Whelan, defense attorney for Defreitas, said the presence of a government informant, who recorded dozens of hours of incriminating conversations with Defreitas and traveled with him, was the key to the case.
“I think it was clear these guys couldn’t act on their own – and didn’t act on their own,” said Whelan. “It’s pretty clear that these guys have seen too many Bruce Willis movies and don’t have enough to fill up their time.”
Whelan said the informant, convicted drug dealer Steven Francis, lured Defreitas, who was living in his native Guyana, back to New York with the offer of a free apartment, paid for by the government. When it came time to conduct surveillance of the airport, Francis drove Defreitas there and bought the video camera.
“He was shown how to use it. He didn’t know how to turn on the on-off switch. He held it up,” Whelan said.
The government’s case relied heavily on tapes – secretly recorded by the informant – of Defreitas bragging about his 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.
He also marveled at the lack of security, saying, “No solider. Nothing at all.”
In other tapes, Defreitas ranted about punishing the United States with an attack that would “dwarf 9/11.” He told the informant his U.S. citizenship gave him cover.
“They don’t expect nobody in this country to do something like this,” he said. “They have their eyes on foreigners, not me.”
Kadir testified in his own defense, denying he was a militant Muslim who spied for Iran for years before joining the JFK scheme. He told jurors that he warned the plotters: “Islam does not support aggression or killing innocent people.”
Kadir, who testified at trial, claimed he met with Defreiatas and the others only in the hopes of siphoning funds to build a mosque.
No funds ever materialized, and Kadir claimed he did nothing to advance the terror plot.
Khafahni Nkrumah, defense attorney for Kadir, said his client was “totally disappointed and maintains his innocence.”
As part of the plot, 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.
Shukrijumah, an FBI-most wanted terrorist, was indicted in federal court in Brooklyn this month on charges he was involved in a failed plot to attack the New York City subway system with suicide bombers.
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