A potential threat seen in America's backyard

Times Staff Writer

Even if terrorism suspect Russell Defreitas were no more than an angry man with vague notions of a spectacular attack, he was able to tap into a network of Islamic extremists in the Caribbean -- potentially dangerous and right in the backyard of the United States, authorities said Saturday.

It was Defreitas' alleged ties to that network, based primarily in Trinidad and Guyana, that had the FBI and other federal authorities so concerned as they clandestinely monitored his activities over the last 18 months, law enforcement officials familiar with the ongoing investigation said.

The FBI also believes that at least several militants from this loosely configured extremist network were involved in the alleged plot to blow up buildings, fuel tanks and pipelines at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. They remain at large and are extremely dangerous, said a federal law enforcement official.

"That is what is most significant about this case. It demonstrates the evolving nature of the threat and how we need to be looking at areas of the world that have not been viewed by the general public as a terror threat," the official said. "It shows that the threat can come from anywhere. It is not just limited to the Middle East or South Asia."

At a news conference to announce the arrest of Defreitas and two other suspects, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly agreed. "This is an area in which we have growing concern, and that I think requires a lot more focus," he said.

Guyana is in South America, and Trinidad is nearby in the Caribbean.

Authorities said Saturday that Defreitas and several suspected associates from Guyana and Trinidad were never close to obtaining explosives or taking any concrete steps to make their plot a reality.

But they said some of the men whom Defreitas linked up with were militants or associates of militants. At least two were alleged to be longtime associates of Trinidad-based radical group Jamaat al Muslimeen.

The FBI and CIA have closely monitored the group since at least 1990, when it tried to overthrow the government of Trinidad and Tobago and replace it with one based on Islamic law.

Defreitas and some of the other men charged in the alleged conspiracy were in Trinidad trying to meet Jamaat al Muslimeen leader Yasin Abu Bakr last month, perhaps to seek financing and approval, according to the federal law enforcement official. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the ongoing investigation.

In recent years, JAM has allegedly engaged in kidnappings, slayings, drug and weapons trafficking, and other illegal activities that have ratcheted up the concerns of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials.

Authorities say they are monitoring JAM members who have moved to New York and established criminal ties to associates back home.

Since Sept. 11, U.S. officials also have become alarmed by the presence of other suspected extremists on the islands, including some from Al Qaeda.

Suspected Al Qaeda operative Adnan el Shukrijumah reportedly has visited Trinidad at least once since 2001 and met with suspected militants. Shukrijumah, who is among the most wanted suspected Al Qaeda members, also has some peripheral connections to Jamaat al Muslimeen, federal authorities told The Times. Shukrijumah has been sighted in Guyana, where he has family and associates, FBI officials said.

A senior FBI official confirmed that agents make frequent trips to Trinidad to hunt for Shukrijumah, his associates and other militants.

On Saturday, authorities said they had not found Defreitas and his alleged group of plotters to have connections to Shukrijumah or Al Qaeda. But they confirmed that they were aggressively investigating whether several of Defreitas' alleged associates had any connections to Islamic militants who use the islands as a base of operations to raise money, recruit members and plan operations.

A 33-page complaint unsealed Saturday describes some of those suspected connections, including a mosque in Brooklyn, several trips to Guyana and Trinidad, and contacts with JAM members.

The court documents name the suspects in the alleged plot as Defreitas, a U.S. citizen from Guyana; Kareem Ibrahim, a citizen of Trinidad; Abdul Kadir, a former member of Guyana's parliament; and Abdel Nur, also a citizen of Guyana.

According to the complaint, Defreitas boasted to an informant that he had been taught to make bombs in Guyana. In August 2006 he told the informant, who recorded numerous conversations, that he had linked up with half a dozen "brothers" from Guyana and Trinidad who "wanted to do something bigger than the World Trade Center."

Soon, the informant and Defreitas were meeting in Guyana with a man identified in the complaint as Individual A and other men, to discuss the plot.

Individual A also told the informant that he and his associates were working on two plans -- one to smuggle individuals, including extremists from Asia into the United States by way of Guyana, "and a second to attack the United States where it would inflict the most harm," the document said. The men allegedly had considered blowing up U.S. helicopters parked at the Guyanese Airport for an air show.

By February, the complaint says, Defreitas was determined to present the plot to the JAM leader and contacted several associates in Guyana to make that happen. Soon, Kadir was brought in, because he "had connections with militants in the Middle East and South America," the complaint quotes another co-conspirator as saying.

Kadir "expressed interest" in the plot and contacted other associates, the complaint alleges. By March, Kadir had volunteered to take Defreitas and the informant to meet the JAM leader, and dispatched an associate to travel to Trinidad to lay the groundwork.

The meeting was set for mid-May, but Kadir backed off and arranged to have associates take the two men to the meeting, according to the complaint. On May 22, the two men traveled to a JAM compound and met Nur, who said he had discussed the plot with the JAM leader. Nur said a meeting with JAM would take place after background checks on Defreitas and the informant, the complaint says.

Before that meeting could take place, Trinidad authorities arrested Kadir, prompting the FBI to take Defreitas into custody.

On Saturday, the federal law enforcement official said the abrupt arrests had cut short a valuable intelligence gathering effort aimed at unraveling a network of Caribbean criminals and possible terrorists.

"They were trying to meet the leadership" of JAM, the official said. "And that's when they were taken down."

josh.meyer@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°