NEW YORK (Reuters) - Four people, including a former member of Guyana’s parliament, have been charged with planning to blow up New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, U.S. officials said on Saturday.
This was “one of the most chilling plots imaginable,” Roslynn Mauskopf, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said at a news conference in New York. “The devastation that would be caused ... is just unthinkable.”
The plotters sought to blow up the airport’s jet fuel tanks and part of the 40-mile (64-km) pipeline feeding them from New Jersey. Three of the four suspects, who included a former airline cargo handler, have been arrested, federal law enforcement officials said.
In a recorded conversation one suspect predicted there would be few survivors and that the attacks would result in the destruction of “the whole of Kennedy.”
There was no connection to al Qaeda, officials said, but some suspects were linked to an Islamist extremist group in Trinidad.
In one recorded conversation, a suspect compared the plot to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, saying, “Even the twin towers can’t touch it.” He added, “This can destroy the economy of America for some time.”
The indictment said the suspects referred to their plot as “the chicken farm” or “the chicken hatchery” but did not explain the code name.
News of the foiled plot comes weeks after six suspected Islamist militants were detained on charges of planning to attack a U.S. Army base at Fort Dix in New Jersey.
Targets in the airport plot included terminal buildings, aircraft and fuel tanks, as well as the fuel pipeline to the airport. Pipeline operator Buckeye Partners L.P. said it had been cooperating with authorities since the investigation started in January 2006.
Spokesman Roy Haase declined to comment on security measures but said speculation the plotters hoped to destroy large parts of the pipeline were unrealistic, since any damage would be confined to the area where fuel leaked and the pipeline was almost entirely underground.
“There’s no oxygen in the pipeline. It’s completely full of liquid and you need oxygen for ignition,” Haase said.
The plot was foiled with the help of an informant who recorded conversations with the suspects, some as recent as last month. The arrests came well before the plan came to fruition and the FBI said there was no threat to the public.
Mark Mershon, assistant director in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s New York field office, declined to say whether there might be more arrests.
Officials said the plot began in the United States and spread to Trinidad and Guyana. Mershon said the cell had shown unusual persistence, seeking finance and expert advice and gathering photographic and video surveillance as well as satellite photographs.
“This is a very determined group,” he said.
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said the plot was “different in its distinct ties to the Caribbean, a region that is rarely thought of in terms of terrorism but of increasing concern to us as a crucible in the foment of Islamic radicalism.”
White House spokeswoman Jeanie Mamo said President George W. Bush had been briefed and updated regularly on the progress of the investigation. “This case is a good example of international counterterrorism cooperation,” she said.
Among the three suspects arrested since Friday was Russell Defreitas, a U.S. citizen and native of Guyana who was arrested in New York. Authorities said he was a former airport employee who conducted surveillance for the group, using his knowledge of the site to identify targets and escape routes.
“Any time you hit Kennedy, it is the most hurtful thing to the United States,” Defreitas said in one recorded conversation. “To hit John F. Kennedy, wow ... they love John F. Kennedy like he’s the man ... if you hit that, this whole country will be mourning. You can kill the man twice.”
Authorities said two suspects were in custody in Trinidad and Tobago -- Abdul Kadir, a citizen of Guyana and former member of its parliament, and Kareem Ibrahim, a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago. Their extradition was being sought, officials said.
Mershon said the fourth suspect, Abdel Nur, a citizen of Guyana, was believed to be at large in Trinidad.
Authorities said Kadir and Nur were associates of Jamaat Al Muslimeen, a Muslim group behind a 1990 coup attempt in Trinidad.
Additional reporting by Xavier Briand and Jim Vicini in Washington and Linda Hutchinson-Jafar in Port of Spain