MIAMI — Seven people were arrested Thursday in connection with the early stages of a plot to attack Chicago’s Sears Tower and other buildings in the U.S., federal law-enforcement sources told NBC News.
FBI agents swarmed over a warehouse in Miami's Liberty City area, using a blowtorch to take off its metal door. Neighbors said the suspects said they were Muslim and had tried to recruit young people to join their group, which seemed militaristic.
The men — part of a radical Black Muslim group — were planning terror acts in Miami and Chicago, officials say.
An official told The Associated Press the alleged plotters were mainly Americans with no apparent ties to al-Qaida or other foreign terrorist organizations. He spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to pre-empt news conferences planned for Friday in Washington and Miami.
‘No imminent threat’
An FBI informant infiltrated the group, the sources say, neutralizing the threat. They say it is not clear how much damage the group would have done on its own. They were making plans to purchase bomb-making materials, the officials add.
Indictments against the men will be unsealed Friday for charges including an attempt to "maliciously damage or destroy" property "by means of an explosive," a source added. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is scheduled to hold a news conference Friday to discuss the raid. A simultaneous news conference will be held in Miami.
U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said in a statement that more details about the ongoing operation would be released then.
Local media reported that agents were raiding a warehouse in Miami's traditionally poor Liberty City section. CNN reported that no weapons or bomb-making materials were found.
"There is no imminent threat to Miami or any other area because of these operations," said Richard Kolko, spokesman for FBI headquarters in Washington. He declined further comment.
‘They seemed brainwashed’
Residents near the warehouse said FBI agents spent several hours in the neighborhood showing photos of the suspects and seeking information. They said the men had lived in the area about a year.
Residents said the men taken into custody described themselves as Mulims and had tried to recruit young people to join their group, which seemed militaristic.
"They slept there" in the warehouse, said Tashawn Rose, 29. "They would come out late at night and exercise. It seemed like a military boot camp that they were working on there. They would come out and stand guard."
She talked to one of them about a month ago. "They seemed brainwashed. They said they had given there lives to Allah," Rose said.
She said they tried to recruit her younger brother and nephew for a karate class but it never happened.
"It was weird," Rose said.
Benjamin Williams, 17, said the group had young children with them sometimes.
"We were under the assumption that they were opening up a garage business," he said, adding that they wore normal clothes "but sometimes they would cover their faces. Sometimes they would wear things on their heads, like turbins."
A man calling himself Brother Corey and claiming to be a member of the group told CNN that the individuals who worship at the building call themselves the “Seas of David.”
He dismissed any suggestion that the men were contemplating violence. “We are peaceful,” he said. He added that the group studies the Bible and has “soldiers” in Chicago, but is not a terrorist organization.
Gov. Jeb Bush was briefed on the situation Thursday, according to his spokeswoman, Alia Faraj. "We have great confidence in the federal, state and local law enforcement agencies who are committed to keeping our country safe," Faraj said.
She added that there has been greater communication between state and federal agencies since the 2001 terrorism attacks.
The 110-floor Sears Tower is the nation's tallest building, at 1,450 feet. Its skydeck was closed for about a month and a half after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Managers of tower said in a statement that they speak regularly with the FBI and local law enforcement about terror threats and that Thursday “was no exception.”
“Law enforcement continues to tell us that they have never found evidence of a credible terrorism threat against Sears Tower that has gone beyond criminal discussions,” the statement said.
Florida terror ties
South Florida has been linked to several terrorism investigations in the past. Several of the Sept. 11 hijackers lived and trained in the area, including ringleader Mohamed Atta and several plots by Cuban-Americans against the government of Fidel Castro have also been based in Miami.
Jose Padilla, a former resident once accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive bomb in the country, is charged in Miami with being part of a North American terror support cell to al-Qaida and other violent Islamic extremist organizations. He has been in federal custody since 2002 and is scheduled for trial in September.
Padilla was originally designated an "enemy combatant" and held for three years without charge by the Bush administration shortly after his May 2002 arrest at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
NBC News’ Pete Williams, Jim Popkin, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.