Saturday, July 01, 2006

Florida Terror Suspects Had No Explosives and Few Contacts
Terror Suspects Had No Explosives and Few Contacts
Sears Tower Plan Never Finished, Authorities Say
By Peter Whoriskey and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers

MIAMI, June 23 -- Federal authorities announced charges here Friday against seven men they described as "a homegrown terrorist cell" that planned to blow up Chicago's Sears Tower and other buildings. But officials conceded that the group never had contact with al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups and had not acquired any explosives.

The group, which operated from a small, warehouse-like building in Miami's impoverished Liberty City neighborhood, adhered to a vague and militant Islamic ideology, claimed the U.S. government had no authority over it, and was led by a charismatic Haitian American named Narseal Batiste, according to officials and the four-count indictment. All but one of the members were citizens or legal residents of the United States.

The case underscores the murkiness that has been common to many of the government's terrorism-related prosecutions since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, cases that often hinge on ill-formed plots or debatable connections to terrorism. It is also the latest in a series of FBI-run stings involving informants or government agents who pose as terrorists to build a case.

The indictment, which charges the men with seeking support from al-Qaeda to wage a "ground war" on the United States, is based primarily on Batiste's interactions with an unidentified government informant who posed as an al-Qaeda "representative" and discussed plans for bombings and assaults on the Sears Tower, the FBI office in Miami and other targets. Batiste and the six others also allegedly swore an oath of loyalty to al-Qaeda during meetings with the informant, according to the charges.

"On or about December 16, 2005, Narseal Batiste provided the 'al Qaeda representative' (actually the FBI informant) with a list of materials and equipment needed in order to wage jihad, which list included boots, uniforms, machine guns, radios and vehicles," the indictment said. The indictment said the group's aim was to " 'kill all the devils we can' in a mission that would 'be just as good or greater than 9/11.' "

But officials said the plot never progressed beyond the early planning stages and the group had no known contact with al-Qaeda. Batiste allegedly recorded video of the U.S. courthouse and other federal buildings in Miami as part of a casing operation, but the camera was provided by the government informant, the indictment said.

Deputy FBI Director John S. Pistole said at a news conference in Washington that the talk of attacking the 110-story Sears Tower -- the tallest building in the United States -- was "aspirational rather than operational." He said none of the men appeared on U.S. terrorism watch lists.

But Pistole and other U.S. officials said aggressive policing and early arrests were necessary to ensure that potential terrorist attacks -- no matter how improbable they may seem -- are thwarted. Prosecutors say that the group's alleged actions, including the video recordings and the requests for weapons and explosives, amounted to overt acts that can be prosecuted under federal anti-terrorism laws.

"Our philosophy is that we try to identify plots in the earliest stages possible, because we don't know what we don't know about a terrorism plot, and that once we have sufficient information to move forward with the prosecution, that's what we do," Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said at the Washington news conference.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert who heads the Washington office of the Rand Corp., said that the Miami plot appears to be "embryonic at best" but that "amateur terrorists can kill as effectively as the professional kind."

"It seems clear that their ambitions were serious; what's not clear is whether they had any real capabilities to pull it off," Hoffman said. "This is the difficult balance that we're trying to strike between being vigilant and not overreacting and equating this with 9/11 or something."

The group came to the attention of authorities when its members began to seek the aid of foreign agents who could help them, federal officials said at a Miami news conference. One of the people the group sought aid from tipped terrorism investigators. A federal informant then presented himself to the group as an al-Qaeda representative, officials said.

On Dec. 16, 2005, Batiste met in a hotel room with the informant and, around the same time, said he was trying to build an "Islamic Army" to wage jihad, according to the indictment. He also asked for boots, uniforms, machine guns, radios, vehicles and $50,000 in cash.

But the suspects received little other than military boots and the video camera from the false al-Qaeda representative, according to the indictment. By May, the indictment suggests, the plan had largely petered out because of organizational problems.

Batiste appeared in federal court in Miami on Friday along with four other defendants who had been arrested during the FBI raids Thursday: Patrick Abraham, Naudimar Herrera, Burson Augustin and Rotschild Augustine. Another defendant, Lyglenson Lemorin, was arrested in Atlanta, while the seventh, Stanley Grant Phanor, was already in custody on a probation charge.

Five of the men are U.S. citizens. Abraham is a Haitian illegally in the country, and Lemorin is a Haitian with legal residency here, officials said. At least six of the seven appear to have faced criminal charges before, according to records, for marijuana possession, battery, assault and concealed weapons.

Phanor had worked in construction, his family said, and took up studying Islam at the warehouse-like building a year ago. He called it "the temple."

"He does not have the heart to kill people," his disbelieving mother, Elizene Phanor, said, falling to her knees. "I swear to God."

The men gathered daily at the building, neighbors said. It used to be a sandwich shop, but less than a year ago the men moved in and remodeled, a neighbor said.

The men sported a variety of dress -- sometimes they were seen in black fatigues, sometimes in ski masks, sometimes in fezzes and dashikis -- and at one point they arranged flags from a number of nations, including Jamaica, Haiti and Cuba, around the building, according to neighbors.

They were not well funded: Neighbors said the men drove old cars and some of them made money by selling shampoo and hair tonic on the street. At Friday's hearing, the defendants said they were self-employed, and all qualified to be represented by a public defender. Batiste, who did stucco work, told the judge he made about $30,000 a year.

"We used to wonder, 'What are they doing? Who are they?' " said Babalu Nesbitt, 67, an immigrant from the Bahamas who collects cans for recycling for a living and who lives close to the building. "But they were the kind that only wanted to talk to their own."

They held readings of the Koran at times, and at others could be seen practicing martial arts outside. After Hurricane Wilma knocked out the electricity in the area for days last fall, the group passed out water from a silver van, some neighbors recalled.

Christopher Johnson, 37, a bodyguard and former Navy SEAL, said he recalled watching the martial arts they were using and being surprised that it seemed to be less about self-defense and more about attack. "A little bell went off," he said. "I thought, 'There's got to be a bigger purpose.' But I let it ride."

In Chicago, Police Superintendent Philip J. Cline told reporters that Batiste used to live in Chicago and was once arrested on a misdemeanor property damage charge. But he said the Miami group never came close to mounting an attack there.

"There was never any imminent danger to the Sears Tower or Chicago," Cline said.

Eggen reported from Washington. Staff writer Peter Slevin in Chicago and researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.