GEORGETOWN, Guyana – Until US federal and state officials called a press conference in New York last weekend to tell the world that four Caribbean nationals were implicated in an alleged plot to bomb fuel tanks and infrastructure at New York’s JFK Airport, most people in the tourism-dependent region saw terrorism as a US problem, but perhaps not anymore.
Three of the four accused Russell DeFreitas, 63, Abdul Kadir 55, and Abdel Nur, 57 are from Guyana the small coastal English-speaking South American nation of 730,000 people that is home to the 15-nation Caribbean Community. The other, Kareem Ibrahim, 56 is from neighboring Trinidad, an oil and gas-rich twin island republic that supplies 70 percent of the winter gas needs of the US
In the complaint, federal prosecutors allege that the four, along with an informant from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), plotted to blow up fuel storage depots and underground pipelines at JFK, one of the world’s busiest airports.
Had the alleged plot succeeded, officials say, the fallout would have been catastrophic for communities near the airport, most of them dominated by immigrants from West Indian countries, Guyana and Trinidad in particular.
"He (DeFreitas) had a vision that would make the World Trade Center attack seem small. Even the twin towers can’t touch it," prosecutors quoted the retired JFK contract workers as saying on wiretaps.
But as television and wire service reports on the alleged plot darkened the Caribbean’s image as a place of peace, sun, sand, sea and paradise, even if temporarily, West Indians were beginning to question whether "these four old men" had the ability, resources and technical know-how to pull off something so big.
Two of the four, DeFreitas and Nur, are known to be men of little material means and people close to them have questioned their mental state. As for the others, Kadir is a former opposition member of the Guyana parliament from 2001-06, a former mayor of his bauxite-mining home town of Linden south of the capital, and is a respected civil engineer and father of 11. Ibrahim is a known community activist in Trinidad and is a former bookkeeper.
A New York court even canceled the bail hearing of DeFreitas because it was a waste of time. He is worth just 50 dollars, according to financial records.
As the days go by since officials like New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Police Chief Ray Kelly stood behind news media microphones commenting on the case, people in the Caribbean are beginning to sift through what they suspect may be official hype since the Sep. 11 attacks.
"I could speak for Mr. Nur. He would be happier in an American jail than on the streets of Guyana. He is broke, abuses drugs and is unstable but he always preached to me that Islam is about peace. He does not have the ability to attack anyone. He was along for the ride to get money. He has got none," said former World Boxing Association Welterweight champion Andrew "Sixheads" Lewis, a nephew of Nur, originally Compton Eversley.
Nur is an elder brother of Lewis’ mother, and he has been at pains to dismiss the idea that Nur is a major player in the alleged plot. "He tries to make a meal every day. That is how bad he is," Lewis said.
In Trinidad, store clerk Neil Singh says he tends not to believe much of what the US says given the fiasco surrounding unfounded claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the 2003 invasion.
"They did not find anything despite all the hype and so-called evidence that they presented to the world. I am waiting to see how this one is going to pan out really," he said.
Guyanese police say the FBI had asked them to pick up Nur in mid-February, photograph the deportee from Canada and fingerprint him. "That was done and we sent it to the FBI," said Chief Henry Greene.
Pouncing on the opportunity to strengthen relations with Washington, Guyanese authorities have labeled the alleged plot "shocking news," saying that the former British colony is a partner in the fight against global terrorism and will cooperate with all countries in pursuit of this objective.
"This latest development brings into sharper focus the need for greater cooperation among countries in the fight against international terrorism. The government of Guyana reiterates its principled position that the fight against international terrorism is for the benefit of all mankind," said National Security Minister Clement Rohee.
But even as Rohee was extending a helping hand, Guyanese and Trinidadian citizens of Muslim faith say they now fear a backlash.
Bibi Shadick, a former social minister in Guyana’s current government, says that profiling "of people with Arabic names and Arab looks will be the case among American authorities and Americans in general given the current immigration debate in the US We know we can’t escape that."
A prominent Muslim, Shadick says that the madrassas (Islamic schools) springing up around the country will also attract increased US attention. Most are funded by Kuwait and by West Indian Muslims overseas.
"Our schools are very normal. They are supervised by the education ministry. The difference is that there is a course in Islamic studies dealing with the history of the religion and the life of Prophet Muhammad. They are not interested in killing people and do not teach anything to do with fanaticism or anything like that," she said. "Still, they will attract scrutiny."
Aubrey Norton, a political science professor at the University of Guyana, says that the Caribbean region must ensure that it is not used as a base to attack other nations.
"We have to stand up and verify things rather than simply being a follower to the US," Norton said. "Now is the time to look at our security interests, environmental security, the narco trade, economic vulnerability given their small economies and now terrorism as a package. We have to be agenda-setters rather than followers."