An alleged plot to blow up fuel tanks and pipelines at New York’s JFK airport had little chance of success, according to safety experts, who have questioned whether the plot ever posed a real threat.
US authorities said Saturday they had averted an attack that could have resulted in “unfathomable damage, deaths, and destruction,” and charged four alleged Islamic radicals with conspiracy to cause an explosion at the airport.
But according to the experts, it would have been next to impossible to cause an explosion in the jet fuel tanks and pipeline. Furthermore, the plotters seem to have lacked the explosives and financial backing to carry out the attack.
John Goglia, a former member of National Transportation Safety Board, said that if the plot had ever been carried out, it would likely have sparked a fire but little else, and certainly not the mass carnage authorities described.
“You could definitely reach the tank, definitely start the fire, but to get the kind of explosion that they were thinking that they were going to get… this is virtually impossible to do,” he told AFP.
The fuel pipelines around the airport would similarly burn, rather than explode, because they are a full of fuel and unable to mix with enough oxygen.
“We had a number of fires in the US. All that happens is a big fire,” he said. “It won’t blow up, it will only burn.”
Even if the attackers had managed to blow up a fuel tank, the impact would be limited, he said, citing the example of North Vietnamese forces attacking US fuel dumps during the Vietnam war.
“They hit the fuel tanks with pretty big rockets. You would get a big fire but not a big explosion other than the rocket.”
“There is a difference between just exploding the tank and a huge explosion. The tank may explode and blow up some metal, but that certainly wouldn’t go very far,” he said.
His comments contrasted with those of US Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf, who insisted at the weekend that “the devastation that would be caused had this plot succeeded is just unthinkable.”
Jake Magish, an engineer with Supersafe Tank Systems, also cast doubt on the credibility of the plot, saying: “The fantasy that I’ve heard about the people saying ‘they will blow the tank and destroy the airport,’ is nonsense.”
“There are people there responding to hysteria, I think. But from an engineering point of view, if someone is successful in blowing a hole into a tank, they will just have a fire from one tank.
“There is no way for the fire to go from tank to tank, that is nonsense. It just won’t happen.”
Besides the alleged plotters’ capability, other questions have focused on the main source in the probe — a convicted drug dealer who infiltrated the group and whose sentence was pending as part of his cooperation with police.
Neal Sonnett, a former federal prosecutor, told the New York Times there was also a danger in overstating how serious or sophisticated a plot really was.
“There unfortunately has been a tendency to shout too loudly about such cases,” he said. “To the extent that you over-hype a case, you create fear and paranoia,” he said.
The New York Times on Sunday pointedly avoided giving much coverage to the alleged plot, devoting only a brief on its front page continued on the local section, despite the story breaking in the early afternoon on Saturday. Agence France Presse