The JFK Airport Terror Plot: Much Ado About Nothing ?

The big story over the weekend involved the arrest of several men involved in an alleged conspiracy to destroy John F. Kennedy Airport in New York by igniting it’s jet fuel lines. Now that time has passed and questions can be raised, it’s not all that clear that this plot ever did, or could, amount to much of anything:

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.

Or has it ? There’s no question, it would seem, that these guys has plotted to try to do something. But, the rhetoric of politicians and prosecutors notwithstanding, it doesn’t seem like it was ever anything more than just talk:

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.

Moreover, much of the Government’s case seems to revolve around information provided by a suspect in an unrelated drug case who agreed to become a prosecution witness and provide information about Defrietas and others involved in the alleged conspiracy.

Beyond discussions about igniting fuel lines, though, it seems clear that the men involved in this “plot” really didn’t know what they were doing:

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.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that they weren’t capable of doing something at JFK. Along with everything else that’s come to light since these arrests were announced, though, it does lead one to doubt just how imminent this threat actually was.