This time it was John F. Kennedy International Airport. Nothing new about big-city airports — seven years ago, Los Angeles International Airport was targeted. Nothing new about New York City, either. The World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, and finally destroyed in the 9/11 attacks. The United Nations complex, the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, the FBI’s Lower Manhattan headquarters, the Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central Terminal — they’ve all been on the hit list. Big Western cities, in fact, are the hit list. New York, L.A., Chicago, Washington, London, Paris, Madrid . . . on it goes.
And, of course, there is nothing new about the culprit. The story is always the same: radical Islamic terror. The storyline is the same, too. But an element of Western opinion always wants to obscure it, turning a blind eye to the ideology of hate that motivates these would-be murderers. The root-causes crowd has little interest in that root cause. No, it must be poverty (even when the terrorists turn out to be comfortable, well-educated, and fully employed); or the Palestinian issue (even though organizations like al Qaeda have barely mentioned the Israeli–Palestinian dispute, and some terror targets, like Bali, had no rational connection to it); or, it goes without saying, George W. Bush and “his” war in Iraq (no matter how many attacks occurred before his presidency).
A growing chorus, weary of the war at home and abroad, some of its voices resistant even to the reality that we are at war, is quick to reject the use of both military force and heightened domestic surveillance. The War on Terror is, they maintain, a war only of ideas.
The enemy’s ideas are frightful: for example, its notion that mass murder is a legitimate means of pressing a socio-political agenda. This is not an aberrational belief espoused by a fringe of jihadist operatives. It is mainstream in Islamic countries and disturbingly common among growing Muslim populations in the United States and Europe.
This time, the hateful ideology infected a cell composed mostly of Guyanese militants, including Russell Defreitas (also known as “Mohammed”), a naturalized American secretly at war with his adopted country, and Abdul Kadir, a former member of Guyana’s parliament who was reportedly en route to a religious conference in Iran at the time of his arrest. It also included another Guyana native said to have ties to the murderous Jamaat al Muslimeen (the Muslim Group), a Sunni terror organization based in Trinidad and Tobago, and a Trinidadian allegedly tied to still other terrorists overseas.
Their inspiration was al Qaeda. Their aspiration was an atrocity more gruesome than 9/11 — a strike aimed not just at airplanes and passenger terminals, but at fuel pipelines that run through dense residential neighborhoods and feed JFK’s thousand planes a day transporting 45 million travelers a year. Their goal was not simply to knock out an airport, but to decimate much of Queens, and with it the U.S. economy.
Overly ambitious? Probably. Defreitas knew the terrain, having retired after years of working cargo at JFK. But his knowledge, and the painstaking surveillance of the target he allegedly did, were unlikely to overcome the technological obstacles to his plan. Further, the cell seems to have lacked financing (although they were actively pursuing it), and they had not yet acquired explosives when the investigation was cut short — apparently by Guyanese authorities understandably concerned that Kadir would evade their coverage if not arrested.
But even if the grand design was beyond the cell’s competence, an attempt could well have killed hundreds of people. As with the recent thwarting of a jihadist plot on Fort Dix, this intended atrocity appears to have been prevented by the cooperation of federal and local law enforcement, who managed to infiltrate the conspiracy with an informant — proving, yet again, that if we are to stop terror attacks rather than react to them, there is no substitute for human intelligence.
The deepest lesson here, though, is that we are at war with an enemy that hates us, that will stop at nothing — even death — to harm us, and that we must understand in order to defeat. That is the first step in the real battle of ideas.