Michael Powell & William K. Rashbaum / The New York Times – 2007-06-04 00:04:23
NEW YORK (June 3, 2007) — The plot as painted by law enforcement officials was cataclysmic: A home-grown Islamic terrorist had in mind detonating fuel storage tanks and pipelines and setting fire to Kennedy International Airport, not to mention a substantial swath of Queens.
“Had the plot been carried out, it could have resulted in unfathomable damage, deaths and destruction,” Roslynn R. Mauskopf, the United States attorney in Brooklyn, said in a news release that announced charges against four men. She added at a news conference, “The devastation that would be caused had this plot succeeded are just unthinkable.”
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly then stepped to the lectern with a vision only a bit less grim.
“Once again, would-be terrorists have put New York City in their crosshairs,” he said. Mr. Kelly said a disaster had been averted.
But the criminal complaint filed by the federal authorities against the four defendants in the case — one of them, Abdel Nur, remained at large yesterday — suggests a less than mature terror plan, a proposed effort longer on evil intent than on operational capability.
(Ms. Mauskopf noted in her news release that the “public was never at risk” and told reporters that law enforcement “had stopped this plot long before it ever had a chance to be carried out.”)
At its heart was a 63-year-old retired airport cargo worker, Russell M. Defreitas, who the complaint says talked of his dreams of inflicting massive harm, but who appeared to possess little money, uncertain training and no known background in planning a terror attack.
“Capability low, intent very high,” a law enforcement official said of the suspects.
Some law enforcement officials and engineers also dismissed the notion that the planned attack could have resulted in a catastrophic chain reaction; system safeguards, they said, would have stopped explosions from spreading.
The complaint, filed in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, also suggests that at least two of the suspects had some ambivalence. One of the men was game for bombing the airport but leery about killing masses of people, the complaint says. Another dropped out of the plot for a time to tend to his business.
The suspects had ties with a dangerous Islamic group that once engineered a deadly coup attempt in Trinidad and Tobago, which was approached about underwriting a plot, but in the end, the men decided to stop courting that group and resolved to shop elsewhere overseas for financing.
No one would second-guess the authorities for pursuing and arresting suspected plotters. An enduring lesson that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have taught prosecutors and the Federal Bureau of Investigation is the danger of inaction.
But as with many post-9/11 terror plots, the line between terrible aspiration and reality can get lost in a murky haze.
In case after case, from what authorities said was a dirty bomber to the Lackawanna Six, federal prosecutors hail arrests of terrorists and disruptions of what they describe as sinister plots. But as these legal cases unfold, the true nature of the threats can come into question.
Ms. Mauskopf and Mr. Kelly declined yesterday to discuss their characterizations of the airport case. Mark J. Mershon, assistant director in charge of the F.B.I.’s New York office, also spoke at the news conference, and he said yesterday that his message was very clear:
“I believe I spoke the simple truth at the press conference: the ambitions were horrific, the capacities were very limited, but they kept trying. Their signature was their persistence.”
Neal R. Sonnett, a defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor who was chief of the criminal division in the United States attorney’s office in Miami, congratulated the F.B.I. for fine police work in what was clearly “a prosecutable case.”
But he said: “There unfortunately has been a tendency to shout too loudly about such cases.”
“It has a bit of the gang that couldn’t shoot straight to it,” Mr. Sonnett said. “It would have served the federal government well to say that.”
The seeming gap between the rhetoric at Saturday’s news conference and the reality of the threat could reflect a change in approach among law enforcement officials.
By their nature, prosecutors prefer to wait until they have accumulated an overwhelming store of evidence. The characteristic tough prosecutorial language of the post-indictment news release reflects their certainty about their cases.
Now, prosecutors and F.B.I. agents find themselves pouncing sooner than in the past, the better to stamp out potential terror plots before there is a grave risk to life or property.
“The whole goal now is to get these plots at a very nascent stage — and that means the evidence will always be more ambiguous,” said Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor who pursued terrorism cases in New York and helped investigate the Sept. 11 attacks.
“We now need to pay a lot more attention to people’s aspirations to commit terror and worry less about how imminent the threat is.”
A reading of the criminal complaint makes clear why prosecutors and F.B.I. agents grew so alarmed as they learned of the ambitions ascribed to the suspects.
One of the co-conspirators, identified in the complaint only as individual E, described himself as a patron of jihad and paid for some of Mr. Defreitas’s travel expenses.
And Mr. Defreitas, in taped statements attributed to him, was unequivocal about his desire to kill many thousands of his fellow Americans.
But the same papers give reason for doubt about the competence of the suspects. The details tend to suggest a distance between Mr. Defreitas’s dream and any nightmarish reality.
There is, too, the question of the role played by the unidentified undercover informant who befriended Mr. Defreitas.
The informant is a convicted drug trafficker, and his sentence is pending as part of his cooperation agreement with the federal government, said the authorities.
It was to this informant, according to the authorities, that Mr. Defreitas first confided his “vision that would make the World Trade Center attack seem small.” The complaint notes that the defendant “did not discuss the details.”
Mr. Defreitas and the informant drove out to the fuel tanks at night, conducting surveillance, and made video recordings of Kennedy Airport and its buildings.
They also “located satellite photographs of J.F.K.,” the complaint states, “and sought expert advice, financing and explosives.”
But the satellite photographs amount to images easily downloaded from Google Earth.
A law enforcement official characterized the surveillance videos as “amateurish”; but he added that the material offered enough detail, taken together with the Google images, to at least help with planning.
The complaint also states that the men discussed “escape routes” through local roads and highways.
Many of the plot’s larger details are left to the imagination.
According to the complaint, one suspect discussed the need to disable an airport control tower, the better to provide cover to destroy the fuel tanks.
Another problem is that none of the suspects appears to have planned or carried out any previous attacks.
Nor do the men appear to possess relevant military training.
One defendant, Abdul Kadir, is said to have warned the others that the Islamists in Trinidad “had their own rules of engagement and wanted to minimize the killing of innocents such as women and children.” He suggested an early-morning assault to take out buildings rather than people, the complaint says.
Other planners seem to come and go, and in the end, one of the men, Kareem Ibrahim, advises that he will present their terror plan to “contacts overseas who may be interested in purchasing or funding it.”
But law enforcement officials say some caution is advised here. Terror plots, particularly those planned ad hoc by freelancers, tend to be messy affairs. There is no assurance that all the plotters share the qualms of a few. Nor is there any assurance an angry plotter might discard the collective long-term planning and strike alone quickly and violently.
“Even if he shoots up a terminal, it’s a disaster,” said a city law enforcement official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic. “At a certain point, once you’re sure there isn’t a larger Al Qaeda involvement, you just move.”
An official in the Justice Department defended the way the case was presented to the public, saying federal authorities offered a reasoned picture of the case and the threat. “We repeatedly let people know there was not a threat to the airport and this was a plot that was nowhere near completion,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to address the issue. “The documents speak for themselves.”
Mary Jo White, who was the United States attorney in Manhattan for nearly a decade and oversaw the successful prosecution of the first World Trade Center bombers in 1993 and the men who attacked the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, said the challenges to a prosecutor are significant.
“Obviously, when you speak about these plots, you don’t want to scare the public unnecessarily,” she said. “But if we’ve learned anything from 9/11 it is we should never again fail to take seriously the lower-level terrorist or wannabe terrorist or the most seemingly apocryphal plot, because they may well occur.”
But Mr. Sonnett, who also is a past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, noted that there is a broader risk in overstating the sophistication of a terror plot. At a time when many Americans live in justified fear of an attack, the risk is that drumbeating creates a climate of fear and drives public policy.
“To the extent that you over-hype a case, you create fear and paranoia,” he said. “It’s very difficult for prosecutors and investigative agencies to remain calm.”
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