NEW YORK — Federal investigators on Saturday said they had disrupted a plot by Islamic extremists to blow up buildings, fuel tanks and pipelines at John F. Kennedy International Airport, another alleged plan aiming at America's air travel system and a landmark in its largest city.
The arrests of a U.S. citizen from Guyana, which neighbors Venezuela, and two alleged accomplices on Trinidad, off the coast of Venezuela, underscored what counter-terrorism officials have described as the global spread of the terrorist threat beyond the Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia associated with Al Qaeda and other groups.
The American, retired JFK cargo worker Russell Defreitas, 63, was charged with three other men in what officials described as a plot intended to cause mass casualties and cripple one of the world's busiest travel hubs. Also arrested were a former member of Guyana's parliament and a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago. Another Guyanese citizen is at large, believed to be in Trinidad, authorities said.
The scheme was so nascent, investigators said, that no plan had developed for acquiring explosives, let alone gaining access to the tanks and pipelines.
The men had gathered detailed surveillance of the airport, made repeated overseas trips and sought help from a radical Islamic organization in Trinidad, said federal officials, citing an investigation underway since January 2006.
"The devastation that would be caused had this plot succeeded is unthinkable," said U.S. Atty. Roslynn R. Mauskopf, who represents the Eastern District of New York, at a Saturday afternoon news conference in Manhattan to announce the arrests.
Even so, officials downplayed the danger to travelers, saying that the plot was far from "operational" and that there was no intelligence to suggest an imminent threat in the U.S. "There are no adjustments to our security posture being made as a result of this plot," said a U.S. Homeland Security official who, like others, requested anonymity while discussing the ongoing investigation.
Officials also said there was no indication of any links to the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
The main figure in the alleged plot, Defreitas, was arrested at a Brooklyn diner Friday night. The two other arrested men were said to be in custody in Trinidad.
"Defreitas was driving this," said a U.S. federal law enforcement official familiar with the investigation. "But he was trying to hook up with some heavy-hitters who had connections for backing and financing."
New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly called Defreitas a "self-radicalized New Yorker" who was "plotting to betray his adopted country with a catastrophic attack." But a federal law enforcement official said the suspect seemed more like a "sad old guy who's got a lot of spit and vinegar in him."
Defreitas was arraigned at a Brooklyn courthouse Saturday.
The case is the latest in a series of alleged domestic terrorist threats involving Muslims residing legally in the U.S., including a case last month at the Ft. Dix Army base in New Jersey.
And the JFK case appears to carry some of the same complications of those earlier investigations -- including the reliance on a paid FBI informant with a criminal record, and questions about some of the alleged plotters' intentions and capabilities.
Investigators indicated Saturday that they had to move more quickly than planned when one of the primary suspects, former Guyanese lawmaker Abdul Kadir, was unexpectedly arrested in Trinidad on Friday. Kadir was described as an imam and the former mayor of Linden, Guyana, as well as a former member of parliament.
"We had to move real fast" after the Trinidadians arrested Kadir, the U.S. federal law enforcement official said. It was unclear why Trinidad authorities made the arrest, the official said, but law enforcement officials feared the arrest would prompt other suspects to flee.
Defreitas was arrested a short time later, as was Trinidadian Kareem Ibrahim.
The suspect at large is Abdel Nur of Guyana.
The United States is seeking the extradition of Kadir and Ibrahim. All four men could face life in prison if convicted.
The aim of the plot, officials said, was to cripple the United States economically and psychologically by blowing up pieces of Kennedy's elaborate jet fuel storage and pipeline system, which stretches across several of the city's boroughs through New Jersey to a supply point in Allentown, Pa.
JFK is among the world's busiest airports, with about 1,000 flights a day. It is expected to handle 45 million passengers and 1.5 million tons of cargo this year.
Much of the federal case cites information obtained with the help of an FBI informant, who is not named in the complaint but is described as having been convicted of drug trafficking and criminal conspiracy. The informant's sentence for his latest conviction "is pending as part of his cooperation agreement with the government," according to the 33-page complaint filed Friday and unsealed Saturday.