THE FACE OF TERROR is constantly evolving as terrorist tactics, and even the foot soldiers trying to attack America, change. When authorities announced last weekend that they had foiled a plot designed to blow up New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport, its fuel tanks, and a jet fuel artery, the conspiracy, on the surface, seemed like more of the same. Although perhaps a bit more ambitious than the usual scheme, the JFK plot was consistent with past attempts in its targeting of a major economic artery and effort to attain maximum symbolic value. But a look at the details contained in the 33-page criminal complaint suggests a change in the modes of operation of America's enemies.
One significant aspect of the complaint is what it suggests about the threat of terrorist infiltration through our southern border. Within analytic circles there is a near consensus that America's northern border poses far more of a threat of terrorist infiltration than the southern border. This view is detailed at length in Richard Miniter's Disinformation, which explains that al Qaeda has had a long-term presence in Canada, and that attempted terrorist entry from the northern border will be aided by "a political climate far different from Mexico--one that actually defends accused terrorists."
In contrast, Miniter writes that "there are no known cases of al Qaeda terrorists sneaking across the Mexican border." As Miniter notes, a 2004 report by Robert S. Leiken of the Nixon Center examining how 212 "suspected or convicted" terrorists entered the United States finds that of all their means of entry, "terrorists stealing across the Mexican border comes last, virtually nil."
But the JFK criminal case may challenge these conclusions. All of the arrested plotters hail from South America and the Caribbean: Russell Defreitas is a U.S. citizen from Guyana; "Amir" Kareem Ibrahim is a citizen of Trinidad; and Abdul Kadir and Abdel Nur are citizens of Guyana. Seven unindicted coconspirators are also mentioned in the complaint, designated Individuals A through G. Six of these unindicted coconspirators are from Guyana; the seventh hails from Trinidad.
Besides the geographic origin of the plotters, their plan for moving terrorists into the United States is also significant. In paragraph 16 of the complaint, Individual A (whom some intelligence sources suspect may be Adnan El Shukrijumah) mentioned that in addition to plotting to strike the United States where it would do the most harm, he was working on a plan "to smuggle individuals, including mujahideen, from Asia into Guyana and then into the United States." The fact that he wanted to transport terrorists through Guyana into the U.S. may well cause analysts to rethink the terrorist threat emanating from the southern border.
It's unclear how Individual A intended to move terrorists into the United States. He could have planned a covert entry, either through the U.S.-Mexico border or the Florida Keys. Or he could have intended the would-be terrorists to come in through a traditional port of entry, perhaps disguising themselves as Latino so they wouldn't fit the typical terrorist profile. In late April, a British judge sentenced five men to life in prison for their roles in a plot to attack London targets with bombs made from a half-ton of fertilizer. One interesting fact revealed at trial was that one of the plotters, Rahman Adam, had legally changed his name to Anthony Garcia. The Washington Post noted that British investigators believed he did this "to conceal his Muslim and Arab background from police."
Besides the implications for border security, the geographic origins of the JFK plotters--and the connections they made use of along the way--may call into question analysts' assumptions about the strength of terrorist networks in Guyana and Trinidad.
One of the defendants, Abdul Kadir, had been a successful politician: he served in the Guyanese parliament and as the mayor of Linden, Guyana. Yet he had no compunction about getting involved in a terrorist plot against the United States. The criminal complaint details his involvement. He developed a codename system for the plot, calling it "the chicken hatchery" or "chicken farm." He walked two of the plotters through a mall in Georgetown, Guyana, explaining that he wanted people in Georgetown to see them with him so anyone thinking of harming the plotters would "think twice." After examining video of the JFK airport taken by "mastermind" Russell Defreitas, Abdul Kadir said the video was insufficiently detailed for operational purposes, and suggested that the plotters use Google Earth software; he provided further technical advice on hiding the video from authorities. Abdul Kadir offered to help finance the plotters' return to New York, helped the plotters avoid Guyanese security's watchful eyes by meeting them at the airport, provided them with technical advice based on his background as an engineer, and set them up with contacts in Trinidad.
The Trinidad connection is likewise significant. The complaint explains that three plotters traveled to a compound of Jamaat al-Muslimeen (JAM), a terrorist group active in Trinidad and Tobago, where Abdel Nur allegedly met with the group's leader. According to the complaint, Abdel Nur presented details of the plan and arranged a later meeting to discuss JAM's possible support. Although this later meeting was aborted because of the plotters' safety concerns, JAM's clear interest in supporting a plot to strike a prominent U.S. target may cause a reevaluation of the group. Despite such high-profile activities as involvement in a 1990 coup attempt against Trinidad's government, a series of bomb attacks against Port of Spain and St. James in 2005, and the alleged murders of former JAM members, most analysts think of JAM as little more than a glorified criminal gang whose thuggish activities are overlaid with radical Islamic rhetoric. This common perception of JAM may no longer be accurate.
Finally, the details of the plot speak to the ongoing debate about the relevance of al Qaeda's central leadership. While the name "al Qaeda" is never mentioned in the complaint, a senior U.S. military intelligence officer says that "it's definitely there if you know what to look for." (Although two of the plotters, Ibrahim and Kadir, were Shia imams, the JAM group that they appealed to for assistance is Sunni--and some intelligence sources believe that their international terrorist connections might be affiliated with al Qaeda rather than Shia terror networks.)
The complaint outlines numerous international terrorist connections of two of the named defendants (Abdul Kadir and Ibrahim) as well as two of the unnamed coconspirators (Individuals A and E). The references to these international connections are significant. Moreover, as the plot moved past the discussion stage, Ibrahim planned to "present the plan to contacts overseas who may be interested in purchasing or funding it." This fits with al Qaeda's classic modus operandi, in which aspiring terrorists would propose attack plans to top al Qaeda leaders to solicit their blessing and support.
Some of the terrorist plots we have witnessed over the past few years that were initially thought to be the work of autonomous cells unconnected to the central al Qaeda network turned out to bear far more of the central leadership's imprimatur than was originally suspected. It increasingly seems that for catastrophic terror attacks--which the JFK plotters certainly saw their scheme as--localized terror cells consistently reach out to international terror networks for support, as opposed to going it alone.
While the joint efforts of the FBI and Trinidadian authorities are to be applauded, some of the tactics employed in this plot may be signs of what is yet to come. Officials must take notice of how terrorist networks are adapting and evolving if they are to keep future plots from coming to fruition.