Coming To America: Guyana And The JFK Plot
Investigation Reveals A Greater South American Terror Operating Environment
By Steve Schippert and Kyle Dabruzzi
From Guyana, the man asked over the phone, "Can I ask you a question? Would you like to die a martyr?" The trips to Guyana thus began in earnest. Unbeknownst to the original American plotter and his various South American facilitators and suitors, those words were spoken to an undercover US government informant. Many more words were to follow over the coming months.
An American originally from Guyana, Russell Defreitas, has been arrested along with two of three others named in a New York City federal prosecutor's formal complaint which was filed for the purposes of seeking arrest warrants. Together - along with others - the four were seeking funding and other resources for an attack on John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. Two of the co-conspirators were from Guyana and the third from Trinidad. Defreitas' plan was to blow up aircraft fuel storage tanks and a pipeline at JFK airport using knowledge partially gained while working there as a cargo handler. Throughout the development of his plot, Defreitas had confided in a federal informant (noted in the complaint as the "Source") who facilitated audio and video recordings with Defreitas and other co-conspirators, both in New York and abroad.
The purpose of this initial analysis, the first in a series, is to give an overview of the plot and to distinguish between what it is and represents and what it is not and does not represent. In essence, the 'mastermind' (Defreitas) was hardly that on many levels. But his connections in South America that were seeking to facilitate attaining the resources of a greater terrorist organization reveal what may be the tip of a terrorist iceberg in South America. The formal complaint referenced above serves as the primary source of information, augmented by outside initial reporting and ThreatsWatch interviews.
The Players: The JFK Tip of the South American Terror Iceberg
All of the four plotters in custody are foreign-born of either Guyanese or Trinidadian origin. Defreitas is a 63-year old naturalized US citizen who was born in Guyana. While described in initial reports as the 'ringleader,' he is a far less capable individual than the term implies. But what he did possess was a hatred for the United States, a desire to plan and execute a deadly attack in New York and enough connections in his native Guyana to actively seek out the support and supervision of a larger, more capable terrorist organization. Many reports consider the plot 'homegrown' because of Russell Defreitas' location and citizenship. However, it is more accurate to describe it as 'transplanted' rather than 'homegrown,' as Defreitas clearly identifies more with his native Guyana than America, regardless of his technical status as a citizen of the United States.
Abdul Kadir, a Guyanese Shi'a imam, is a significantly powerful former minister of parliament in Guyana who was making his way to Iran when arrested. It was his flight from the country that triggered the sweep of arrests in Trinidad and New York City. Kadir's wife said that he was going to Iran for an Islamic Conference on a flight via Venezuela. He was apparently looking to get an Iranian Visa while in Venezuela, which raises questions. With a planned Islamic conference, why would a man leave the important visa issue for between connecting flights from Venezuela to Iran? The sequence suggests a man on the run. The well-connected man was perhaps tipped of a security breach among the plotters' group. Kadir became central to the plot after Defreitas' original connections backed out, apparently due to lack of confidence in operational security with Defreitas and the "Source."
Kareem Ismail is the imam of one of Trinidad's two most prominent Shi'a mosques. He, like Kadir, received his religious training in Iran. Kareem Ibrahim is being investigated for suspected links to Shi'a terrorist groups in Southern Iraq and Iran after he sent an 'emissary' to 'overseas contact' in order to secure greater support for the plot.
Abdel Nur, who surrendered to authorities in Trinidad on Tuesday, was an individual who was making arrangements to introduce Defreitas and the "Source" to "a leader of Jamaat al-Muslimeen (JAM)," a Sunni group in Trinidad who attempted a failed bloody coup in Trinidad in 1990. The group's leader, Yasin Abu Bakr, has faced inciting violence and terrorism charges in Trinidad. Suspect Abdul Kadir had originally introduced Nur to "a leader of Jamaat al-Muslimeen," which may or may not have been Abu Bakr. But it did establish a link between Kadir and JAM leadership as well.
Any list of the 'players' involved is incomplete without due mention of the "Source." The unnamed informant is an American citizen who has been convicted twice on drug trafficking and/or drug dealing charges, once in 1996 and once again in 2003. His cooperation was motivated by his desire to receive a lighter prison sentence in return for his cooperation. But regardless of his past drug transgressions, his actions required bravery and should be considered heroic. He was invited to Guyana by a man who asked if he wanted "to die as a martyr," and proceeded to go Guyana and meet such an individual and his unknown associates while wearing a wire. Three times. And while the attack plot is being downplayed by many because it "never got past the talking stage," this is due precisely to the actions of the "Source."
The Plot: Fuel Tanks And Fury
With hatred for his adopted country for its support of the Israeli Jewish state, Defreitas had conducted visual surveillance of JFK airport, including videotaping certain areas. He had drawn upon his knowledge of the airport internally from his previous experience as a cargo handler at the same airport. At the urging of one of his Guyanese contacts, Defreitas also used Google Earth for accurate aerial imagery of the layout. He plotted on them the locations of the fuel storage tanks and the pipeline. During physical surveillance and drawing upon his experiences, he observed to the "Source" that security was actually tighter when the New York City Police covered the area at night. During daylight hours, he noted, the civilian airport security was easier to penetrate and/or evade.
While initial reporting contained the sensational description provided by Defreitas of an attack "bigger than the World Trade Center," in reality, blowing up fuel storage tanks in the vast openness of an airfield is hardly on a similar scale. Nor would it be accurate to say the plan would effectively blow up all of the JFK airport. And while Defreitas envisioned blowing up the fuel pipeline that feeds the terminal, its blast effect would not travel back along the pipeline through populated areas of the Queens Borough of New York City as he seemed to imagine. Yet, it should not be dismissed that Defreitas possessed the will not only to attack the United States and kill Americans, he had the drive to seek foreign terrorist assistance in order to carry out his plans.
While Defreitas' plans may not have been quite as catastrophic as he envisioned, that is not to say that the plan could not have been improved upon with proper terrorist 'adult supervision' from a more capable group. Primarily through Abdul Kadir and Abdel Nur of Guyana and Kareem Ibrahim of Trinidad, Defreitas was seeking financial and material support from a larger terrorist organization for the attack. The federal prosecutor executed the arrest warrants when the group appeared to be close to attaining that support.
Throughout the development of the plot, the "Source" Defreitas decided to partner with voluntarily recorded conversations, phone calls and emails, also including video recordings facilitated with US government surveillance equipment installed in his vehicle. In that regard, the charges against Defreitas, Abdul Kadir, Kareem Ismail and Abdel Nur are largely based on the hard evidence of their own recorded communications.
The Quest: Seeking Organized Terrorist Assistance
Defreitas and the "Source" flew from New York to Guyana in September 2006. The "Source" returned to New York one month later (after Ramadan). But Defreitas stayed in Guyana until January 1, 2007, when he returned to New York to begin surveillance on the JFK airport with the "Source." What Defreitas was doing with over three months of time in Guyana is unclear from the official complaint, which includes only enough information known to authorities to obtain arrest warrants. But this and subsequent time gaps unexplained during their visits leaves open the possibility of terrorist training in Guyana.
On January 14, 2006, both men returned to Guyana and continued their meetings with Individual E, Individual A and Abdel Nur. In mid-February, after the "Source" deleted the JFK surveillance video from Individual E's computer, sparking an argument, Individual E backed out of the plot, presumably for security concerns and lack of trust and confidence in Defreitas and the "Source."
Through contacts, Defreitas found his way to Abdul Kadir, the former Guyanese lawmaker, as an alternate source of support. Kadir agreed that meeting the JAM leader was still a good idea and that Abdel Nur was still the right person to introduce the two to him, since it was Kadir who had originally introduced Nur to the JAM leader in Trinidad. Kadir also made recommendations about the operation, including conducting it in the morning in order to minimize civilian casualties. The attack should be more economic in nature, according to Kadir. With this, Defreitas and the "Source" returned to the United States on February 28, 2007, with plans to return for the meeting with the JAM leader.
Defreitas decided to ask Kadir to introduce them to the JAM leader in Trinidad when they returned, and Kadir agreed to this. The "Source" and Defreitas traveled to Guyana for a third time in early may on separate flights one day apart. After making another assessment on the structure of JFK's target fuel tanks, Kadir backed out of introducing the two to the JAM leader, citing a "project" that required his attention. He did, however, arrange for yet another individual, Individual G, to meet them in Trinidad and introduce them. In the same conversation in which he informed them, Kadir received a phone call and informed them that the "brothers" in Trinidad have everything lined up, indicating that either his "project" was a last minute issue or that he was getting cold feet.
The latter is more likely, as within the ensuing conversation, Kadir was recorded as saying that "Right now in Trinidad, with [redacted: name of JAM leader]. It is hot, with respect to national security, and international security. Because I think there was some problem. Some problem with the government and what not. [Redacted: name of JAM leader] has been acting up lately. And they have him under very serious surveillance. Even to the point of international, because they see he has links to Mohamar Qadafi." JAM's Yasin Abu Bakr has been known to be in constant trouble with Trinidad authorities on various charges and suspicions.
Defreitas and the "Source" made their way to Trinidad, with Abdel Nur following behind in a separate flight from Guyana. When there, Defreitas and the "Source" were taken to the home of Kareem Ismael (aka "Amir Kareem"), where they stayed for two days. They then went to the JAM compound, where Nur was waiting, and where he had been since he arrived in Trinidad. Nur said that he had presented the plan to the JAM leader and had subsequently made arrangements for the two to meet with the JAM leader regarding the attack plans.
However, on the next evening, Kareem Ismail advised Defreitas and the "Source" to let him instead present the plan to "contacts overseas." Kareem Ismail is suspected of having ties to Shi'a terrorist groups in Iran and southern Iraq and possibly elsewhere. Kareem said that his contacts "may be interested in purchasing or funding" the operation against JFK, and asked them to leave their surveillance videos and maps with him in the event they inquired.
Further, Kareem asked Kadir if any money received for the operation could be kept in his "foundation" in Georgetown, Guyana, to which Kadir agreed.
This evolution in Defreitas' quest for support is the terrorist group 'adult supervision' that may have turned Defreitas' plot into an effectively actionable and executable attack in New York City.
The Plot's Greater Threat: What It Is & What It Is Not
As the investigation continues and perhaps more information becomes public, what is likely to emerge is a picture in which the actors named in the complaint, apprehended and in custody, are the least of the concerns. Defreitas himself, even with no shortage of bitterness for his adopted country, is a man who appears to possess more desire than ability.
The plot itself may well be reduced in relative significance. The plot and its investigation appear to represent the tip of the iceberg in a much broader and deeper terrorist operating environment in Guyana, one which had previously flown completely beneath the radar. More troubling than the named conspirators are several of the unnamed individuals, Individuals A-G. These individuals appear more than once on a short list of other troubling aspects of the plot and its Guyana terror connections.
- Individual A asked the government Source early on, "Would you like to die as a martyr?"
- Plans for the attack had developed beyond Defreitas' limited abilities before he ever met the "Source." Defreitas revealed to him that, though he did not know the full details of the plan, it involved a "cell" of "six or seven" people who would arrive at JFK by aircraft, "do what they had to do and get out."
- Flying terrorists into JFK from Guyana requires passports, which makes the involvement of a well connected former Guyanese minister of parliament, Abdul Kadir, all the more troublesome. The extent of Individual E's perceptible reach is equally troublesome in that regard.
- Individual A disclosed two plans: Smuggling mujahideen into Guyana from Asia and then into the United States; Attacking the United States where it could do the most harm. [Note: In British parlance used in former colonies such as Guyana, 'Asia' distinctly includes the Sub-Continent, ie: India and Pakistan.
- Individual E said that he helps "brothers" with a basic knowledge of Islam who want to perform jihad. Note that religious devoutness is not a prerequisite. He said he takes care of individuals' basic needs while they perform the duties of jihad. This would presumably include training and may explain how Defreitas' "basic needs" were taken care of for his extended stays in Guyana, perhaps including training as his jihad duties. This illustrates more of Individual E's capabilities and position than Defreitas'. Individual E represents a view to the larger threat.
- Defreitas said the "Source" would meet an Individual B in Guyana, but that this would not happen until they got there and the "Source" could be vetted by Individual B (more carefully). This indicates a level of discreteness and caution associated with a higher level core jihadiyun. His name (or the Individual B reference) never surfaced again in the complaint, which in no way represents all of the intelligence gathered. At the end of the day, Individual B may prove to be the most dangerous, connected and dedicated terrorist appearing in the complaint, even though appearing only once within. Further, that he never actually was reported to have met with Defreitas or other individuals within the context of the complaint is of little consequence. His presence beneath the radar in Guyana is representative of the true threat, not the existence of conversations with a man of limited utility such as Defreitas.
- The Guyana issue gives rise to the importance of Islamist terrorist operations in South America, most notably in the Tri-Border Area where Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina meet. Usama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed reportedly visited the Tri-Border Area in 1995 in order to establish their own operations there. It has been a known haven for Hizballah, which also operates openly and without consequence in Venezuela.
But as stated previously, it is at least a stretch to consider this a true 'homegrown' terror plot. Even with his naturalized status, Russel Defreitas is more a transplant without the expected love for one's adopted country. Further, Russel Defreitas does not necessarily represent the true threat. If he did, the United States would have acted to arrest him far sooner. Instead, it was only when his ideas for attack became dangerously close to more capable and organized terrorist organizations' hands and supervision that the United States government stepped in, resulting in the arrests and the prevention of the maturation of the plot.
In the meantime, much valuable intelligence was gathered. This is how counterterrorism investigations should work. Identify a threat, develop intelligence to get a better, deeper (and in this case, new) understanding of the nature of the threat and actors involved. And when the actual threat of attack begins to reach maturation, only then should the plug be pulled. This prevents not only the current attack threat, but helps counter subsequent attacks through a better understanding of the enemy's activities.
In short, the true threat that must be recognized emanating from the revelation of the Kennedy Airport attack plot is not the attack envisioned by Russel Defreitas, a man of grossly limited skills and means. The greater threat moving forward is that posed by a potentially broad and deep terrorist operating environment existing within areas of South America not previously afforded serious scrutiny. This lack of scrutiny, of course, is what would make such areas with minority but not unsubstantial Muslim population attractive to the enemy. Such 'under the radar' locations provide significant cover, recruiting base, operational freedom and more convenient proximity to the American mainland. American intelligence and counterterrorism agencies would do well to devote and develop appropriate resources to this potentially significant threat.
For the general public, ThreatsWatch will generate a PrincipalAnalysis series, with publications dedicated to a closer look at the key players in this particular plot (and their extended ties), known terrorist actors operating in South America (such as al-Qaeda terrorist Adnan El Shukrijumah), and a closer look at the regional environment, including Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and the Tri-Border Area.