NEW YORK – A 65-year-old imam from Trinidad was convicted Thursday by a federal jury of participating in a failed plot to blow up jet fuel tanks at John F. Kennedy International Airport, a scheme that authorities said was meant to outdo the Sept. 11 attacks and avenge perceived U.S. oppression of Muslims around the world.
Kareem Ibrahim was convicted of five conspiracy counts after jury deliberations that spanned two days. The mastermind of the operation, Russell Defreitas, a former cargo handler, and co-conspirator Abdul Kadir, an engineer and former member of Guyana's parliament, are serving life in prison after their convictions on conspiracy charges.
Ibrahim is facing life in prison at sentencing, which is scheduled for Oct. 21.
A fourth man, Abdel Nur, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 years.
Ibrahim's case was severed from the others' after he fell ill. His visible weight loss prompted talk that he was on a hunger strike to protest the charges against him.
Federal prosecutors said the men wanted to kill thousands of people and cripple the American economy by using explosives to blow up the fuel tanks at Kennedy and the underground pipelines that run through an adjacent Queens neighborhood. A government informant infiltrated the group and recorded conversations. The trials relied heavily on the informant's secret recordings, including some that captured Defreitas bragging about his inside knowledge of the airport and its vulnerabilities.
Prosecutors accused Ibrahim of joining the plot in May 2007 and offering religious instruction and operational support. During cross-examination at trial, Ibrahim admitted that he advised the plotters to talk to revolutionary leaders in Iran and to use operatives ready for suicide missions at the airport.
"They must be able to fight out. Kill who you could kill and go back to Allah," Ibrahim is heard as saying on the recording, talking about the people who would've presumably carried out the attack at Kennedy.
"This is our job," he said. "If you die, you're successful," according to trial testimony.
During closing arguments, defense attorney Michael Hueston told the jury that the imam never intended to join the plot, and was lying to the two when he said he would join them, in order to escape them.
"I just went along and hoped it would fizzle out," Ibrahim testified. "It wasn't my intention to further the plot."
The defense argued that Defreitas and his cohorts were harmless trash talkers who were "egged on" by the informant. He was portrayed as broken-down, illiterate and delusional.
Defreitas, 68, and the informant traveled to Guyana to try to meet with Kadir and show him homemade videotapes of the airport's so-called fuel farms. The plotters also discussed reaching out to Adnam Shukrijumah, an al-Qaida member and explosives expert who was believed to be hiding out in the Caribbean at the time.
Shukrijumah, an FBI most-wanted terrorist, has been indicted on federal charges he was involved in a failed plot to attack the New York City subway system with suicide bombers.
Ibrahim, Kadir and Nur were arrested in Trinidad in 2007, with Kadir aboard a plane headed to Iran, and were eventually extradited.
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