NEW YORK -- Federal investigators said yesterday they had disrupted a plot by Islamic extremists to blow up buildings, fuel tanks and pipelines at John F. Kennedy International Airport, another plan to take aim at America's air travel system and a landmark in its largest city.
The arrests of a U.S. citizen from Guyana and alleged accomplices in Trinidad underscored what counterterrorism officials have described as the global spread of the terrorist threat beyond the Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia associated with al-Qaida and other groups.
The aim of the plot, officials said, was to deliver a crippling psychological and economic blow to the United States by blowing up pieces of Kennedy's elaborate jet fuel storage and pipeline system -- which stretches across several of the city's boroughs through New Jersey to a supply point in Allentown, Pa.
Kennedy is among the world's busiest airports, with about a thousand flights a day, and is expected to handle about 45 million passengers this year and 1.5 million tons of cargo.
A retired airport cargo worker and a former member of parliament in Guyana were among four men charged with a plot that officials said was intended to cause mass casualties.
Investigators acknowledged, however, that the scheme was so nascent that there was no developed plan for how the plotters would get explosives, let alone gain access to the tanks and pipelines they hoped to target.
The plotters had gathered detailed surveillance of the airport, made repeated overseas trips and sought the assistance of a radical Islamic organization in Trinidad, according to federal officials who pointed to information obtained from an investigation that had been under way since January 2006.
"The devastation that would have been caused had this plot succeeded is unthinkable," Roslynn Mauskopf, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said at a news conference yesterday in Manhattan to announce the arrests.
Even so, officials played down the danger to travelers, stressing that the plot was far from "operational" and that there was no intelligence to suggest an imminent threat in the United States. "There are no adjustments to our security posture being made as a result of this plot," said a Homeland Security official who, like others discussing the continuing investigation, requested anonymity. Officials also said there was no indication of any links to the al-Qaida terrorist network.
The main figure in the alleged plot was identified as Russell Defreitas, a 63-year-old U.S. citizen from Guyana who worked at JFK handling cargo until 1995. He was arrested at a Brooklyn diner Friday night. Two other suspects were said to be in custody in Trinidad, while a fourth remained at large.
"Defreitas was driving this," said a U.S. federal law enforcement official familiar with the investigation. "But he was trying to hook up with some heavy-hitters who had connections for backing and financing."
Authorities described Defreitas in contradictory terms. New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly called Defreitas a "self-radicalized New Yorker" who was "plotting to betray his adopted country with a catastrophic attack." But a federal law enforcement official said the suspect seemed more like a "sad old guy who's got a lot of spit and vinegar in him."
Defreitas was arraigned at a Brooklyn courthouse yesterday and was denied bail.
The case is the latest in a series of alleged domestic terrorist threats involving Muslims residing legally in the United States, including one last month targeting Fort Dix in New Jersey.
And it appears to carry some of the same complications of those earlier investigations -- including the reliance on a paid FBI informant with a lengthy criminal record, and questions about some of the alleged plotters' intentions and capabilities.
Investigators indicated yesterday that they were forced to move more quickly than they had planned to roll up the alleged scheme, prompted by the unexpected arrest of one of the primary suspects, Abdul Kadir, in Trinidad on Friday. Kadir was described as an imam, a former Guyanese lawmaker and the former mayor of Linden, Guyana.
"We had to move real fast after the Trinidadians arrested" Kadir, the U.S. federal law enforcement official said. He said it was unclear why authorities in Trinidad had made the arrest, but that it prompted fears among law enforcement officials that others would flee.
Greg Miller and Erika Hayasaki write for the Los Angeles Times.