The Federal Bureau of Investigation-New York Police Department Joint Terrorism Task Force says it will continue employing cooperative witnesses to crack terrorism-related cases after the partnership recently exposed an alleged conspiracy to attack New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
“I think that we would be remiss if we didn’t continue to pursue that investigative tool,” said James Margolin, an FBI agent working in the New York branch. “We want to use whatever lawful means exist to investigate and prevent terrorist conspiracies.”
Recent charges brought against four Muslim men — one American, two Guyanese and one Trinidadian — stemmed from a relationship that formed in the Gertz Plaza Mall in Queens, N.Y., and extended more than 10 months to culminate in an arrest at the Lindenwood Diner in a Brooklyn neighborhood roughly three miles from their intended target.
If the charges filed against the men are accurate, the methods used to infiltrate the group, collect information and make arrests helped to prevent an attack that could have inflicted a massive number of casualties. The case also illustrates that task force methods can involve the cooperation of convicted criminals granted a green light to travel abroad and gather intelligence.
A cooperative witness — referred to as “the source” in a June 1 legal document embedded himself with the alleged conspirators, traveled to two foreign countries and was able to surreptitiously deliver tape recordings, e-mail, financial documents, surveillance reports and other records to agents working the case.
The source began working with the New York joint task force in 2004 in the hope of reducing a jail sentence and in exchange for financial assistance. However, the source did not make contact with a member of the alleged terrorist cell until mid-2006.
The source was convicted of federal drug trafficking and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) charges in 1996 and of a separate set of drug trafficking charges in the New York Supreme Court in 2003.
The source first met Russell Defreitas, a 65-year-old naturalized American citizen from Trinidad and a retired cargo handler at JFK, on July 13, 2006, at the Gertz Plaza Mall, according to a complaint filed by the task force.
At that time Defreitas told the source he was sure they had met before at a Brooklyn mosque and roughly four days later confided to the source that he had a terrorist attack in mind that would be larger in scale than the Sept. 11 attacks.
By mid-September, the source flew to Guyana and stayed there for more than one month, learning that Defreitas’ plan involved detonating pipelines and reserve tanks that feed fuel to aircraft at JFK.
Upon returning to New York, the source and Defreitas spent Jan. 3, 4, 10, and 11 surveying and videotaping JFK to identify and document vulnerable fuel tanks and pipelines; entries and escape routes; and airport security patterns and methods. They returned to Guyana on Jan. 14 with the videotapes to show other conspirators.
During that trip to Guyana, Defreitas expressed a strong interest in colluding with a leader of the Jamaat al Muslimeen, a Trinidadian Muslin organization that has links to a 1990 coup d’état, murder, kidnapping, drug and weapons trafficking, money laundering and extortion, according to the complaint.
The source and Defreitas also established first contact with Abdul Kadir, a former member of the Guyanese parliament and a former mayor of a Guyana city known as Linden who was connected to militant elements in the Middle East and South America.
Kadir expressed interest in the plan to attack JFK on Feb. 19 and termed the plot the “chicken hatchery” and the “chicken farm.” Kadir also advised the source and Defreitas to use Google Earth satellite imaging software to get more detailed pictures of the New York airport.
The sting operation nearly came unraveled nine days later.
When the two men returned to New York on Feb. 28, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at JFK engaged Defreitas in secondary questioning and photocopied his phone book, which contained contact numbers for Kadir and other alleged conspirators.
The following day Defreitas called Kadir, told him about the incident and expressed suspicion that the U.S. government was onto their plan. Almost a week later Kadir informed the source that “the folks don’t want to deal with that hatchery” because “right now it is too sensitive.”
But the plot picked up steam again in mid-April when Kadir agreed to introduce the source and Defreitas to the Jamaat al Muslimeen leader in Trinidad.
In the second week of May, the source and Defreitas returned to Guyana and presented Google Earth images of JFK as well as the surveillance video to Kadir. During the meeting Kadir asked a number of questions about the terrain. From there, the group’s logistical plans — including the type of explosives needed and techniques for detonating the pipelines and tanks — began to take shape.
On May 20, the source, Defreitas, and a third conspirator named Abdel Nur traveled to Trinidad and met Kareem Ibrahim, another of Kadir’s associate. However, only Nur was able to meet with the Jamaat al Muslimeen leader during the trip and a decision to exclude him from the plan was soon made.
Three days after landing in Trinidad, Defreitas briefed Ibrahim, Nur and the source on the plan of attack using the Google Earth images and the surveillance tape. When the presentation concluded, Ibrahim advised the others to give him the tape and the images so he could market the plan to contacts he had outside the country. The others agreed and the following day Kadir arranged to shelter funding collected from these contacts at his foundation in Linden.
The source and Defreitas returned to New York on May 26 and received a report the following day that Ibrahim had sent an emissary overseas to pitch the plan to his contacts.
On June 1, with the plan picking up momentum, the FBI and ® pounced to prevent it from going any further.
That day Defreitas was arrested in Brooklyn when he went to meet the source at the Lindenwood Diner and Kadir was arrested as he attempted to board an airplane in Trinidad bound for Venezuela. He was alleged to be heading to the neighboring country to acquire a visa for travel in Iran.
Ibrahim was arrested outside a mosque in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on June 2 and the following day Nur turned himself in to police outside the capital city.
Margolin said the next stop for the source will almost certainly be an appearance in court assuming the cases brought against the four men go forward as planned. “We can’t use the tapes unless they are authenticated, so that requires the person who made the tapes to get up on the stand,” he said. “We want to be able to use any of the recordings that he produced and even if not, some of the recordings that he has produced have already been referred to in the complaint. So even if the government did not want to put him on as a witness, the defense would likely want the opportunity and has the right to question him on the stand.”