By Tom Hays
The Associated Press
NEW YORK — Until a suspected terrorist plot was revealed, few people even knew there was a pipeline of highly combustible jet fuel snaking beneath the nation's largest city.
But authorities said Monday that it's one of countless lesser-known targets - including waterway retaining walls, dingy rail yards and tunnel ventilation systems - that they struggle to protect from attacks.
New York police spend "considerable time and resources protecting the landmarks nearly everyone would recognize as emblematic of New York and America," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said. "But we also protect the anonymous, unheralded elements of infrastructure that are essential to the life of the city."
Police were aware that the fuel system feeding John F. Kennedy International Airport posed a risk well before investigators unearthed an alleged conspiracy by a homegrown Muslim terror cell to blow it up, with the goal of killing thousands of people and inflicting major damage on the U.S. economy.
Pipeline networks don't carry the stature of sites such as Wall Street, the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, so the general public doesn't give them much notice.
But, said Kelly McCann, president of Kroll Security Group and a former Marine officer assigned to counterterrorism duty, said authorities "think about them every day. They're fully focused on them and feeling overwhelmed."
For example, the NYPD has monitored the hulking ventilation towers along the Hudson River that feed fresh air to the Lincoln and Holland tunnels for signs of a chemical attack. Tens of thousands of cars pass through the tunnels each day, and they are usually filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic during rush hours. If a nefarious substance got in the tunnel, it could be devastating.
The NYPD has also quietly used its scuba unit to inspect retaining walls on the East River near the United Nations for any signs of underwater mines. In addition, officers have sought to secure rail yards, fearing that terrorists might try to tamper with rail cars carrying dangerous chemicals through the city.
Past investigations have foiled a separate scheme to flood the Wall Street area by breaching a retaining wall at the World Trade Center site, along with a homegrown plot to blow up the busy Herald Square subway station in midtown Manhattan.
Investigators in the 2004 train bombing in Madrid also discovered a crude diagram of Grand Central Terminal on a computer disk seized from one of the suspect's homes.
The pipeline system targeted by the suspects in the latest case is huge, winding its way through all corners of the city. It is part of a national pipeline network run by Buckeye Partners LP that serves major airports in New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Pennsylvania, among other locations. The network also delivers jet fuel to military bases.
In a criminal complaint outlining the allegations, one suspect is quoted as saying he hoped it would "cause greater destruction than in the Sept. 11 attacks," torching the airport, killing several thousand people and destroying parts of New York's borough of Queens, where the pipeline route is marked by warning signs.
The accused mastermind of the plot, Russell Defreitas, 63, was in custody Monday in New York, where he is due to have a bail hearing Wednesday.
Two other suspects, Kareem Ibrahim and Abdul Kadir, a former member of Guyana's Parliament, were in Trinidad and planned to fight extradition to the United States.
The two made their initial court appearance Monday on one count each of conspiracy to commit a terrorist act against the government of the United States. The judge set a bail hearing for June 11 and an extradition hearing Aug. 2.
Authorities in Trinidad are seeking a fourth suspect, Abdel Nur.
Also Monday, a law enforcement official confirmed reports that the suspects had been captured on tape discussing trying to recruit Adnan Gulshair El Shukrijumah, an alleged al-Qaida member and bombmaker. The suspects allegedly sought support from fellow extremists in Trinidad and Guyana, where El Shukrijumah grew up.
But there was no evidence that the men ever made contact with El Shukrijumah, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation had not been completed.
Authorities and experts agree that the scheme, like the recent plot to attack a military base in New Jersey, was another case of the suspects' ambitions far exceeding their capabilities.
The pipeline was designed to shut off when it detects heat, a feature that would have prevented the chain-reaction explosion that the plotters allegedly envisioned, authorities said. And it would have been virtually impossible to get inside the airport to do the kind of damage they planned.
Even if the suspects had succeeded in detonating a bomb, McCann said, there "would have been some damage and it would have been terrible. But would the whole thing have gone up? No."
Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.