MIAMI — Seven young men arrested in an alleged plot against the Sears Tower were part of a group of “homegrown terrorists” who sought to work with al-Qaida but ended up conspiring with an informant, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Friday.
Outlining an alleged plot to bomb the Sears Tower in Chicago and a federal building in Miami, Gonzales told a Justice Department news conference: “They were persons who for whatever reason came to view their home country as the enemy.”
Gonzales stressed that “there was no immediate threat” in either Chicago or Miami because the group didn’t have the materials it was seeking. FBI Deputy Director John Pistole concurred, saying, “This group was more aspirational than operational.”
The seven individuals — ranging in age from 22 to 32 — were indicted by a federal grand jury in Miami. Six were taken into custody in Miami on Thursday when authorities swarmed a warehouse in the Liberty City area, removing a metal door with a blowtorch. A seventh was arrested in Atlanta.
Five are U.S. citizens, one is a legal immigrant from Haiti and the other is a Haitian national who was in this country illegally.
All had taken an oath to al-Qaida and sought help from someone they believed was a member of the terrorist organization, the indictment alleged.
First court appearance
Five of the defendants, including alleged ringleader Narseal Batiste, made their initial appearances in federal court in downtown Miami on Friday. They were brought into and out of the courtroom under heavy security in single file, chained together at the wrists and wearing ankle chains.
No pleas were entered during the brief hearing. U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick White scheduled another hearing for next Friday to consider a motion by prosecutors that the defendants be kept in custody until trial. White also appointed lawyers for Batiste and the four others after each said he could not afford one.
In answer to the judge’s questions, Batiste said he was “self-employed” and earned about $30,000 a year, but he provided no details. He also said he has four children.
Batiste allegedly met in December in a hotel room with someone posing as a representative of al-Qaida — someone law enforcement officials say was actually an agent of a country friendly to the United States.
Another defendant was scheduled to make a court appearance in Atlanta. It was not immediately clear when the seventh man would have his first appearances.
Gonzales outlined the contents of an indictment handed up Thursday, which identified Batiste as having recruited and trained others beginning in November 2005 “for a mission to wage war against the United States government,” including a plot to destroy the Sears Tower.
To obtain money and support for their mission, the conspirators sought help from al-Qaida, pledged an oath to the terrorist organization and supported an al-Qaida plot to destroy FBI buildings, the four-count indictment charged.
Batiste met several times in December 2005 with a person purporting to be an al-Qaida member and asked for boots, uniforms, machine guns, radios, vehicles and $50,000 in cash to help him build an “‘Islamic Army’ to wage jihad’,” the indictment said. It said that Batiste said he would use his “soldiers” to destroy the Sears Tower.
Gonzales said “the individual they thought was a member of al-Qaida was present at their meetings and in actuality he was working with the South Florida Joint Terrorism Task Force.”
Alleged mission: Worse than 9/11
In February 2006, it said, Batiste told the “al-Qaida representative” that he and his five soldiers wanted to attend al-Qaida training and planned a “full ground war” against the United States in order to “kill all the devils we can.” His mission would “be just as good or greater than 9/11,” the indictment accused Batiste of boasting.
The seven defendants were charged with conspiring to “maliciously damage and destroy by means of an explosive” the FBI building in North Miami Beach and the Sears Tower in Chicago.
They were are also charged with conspiring “to levy war against the government of the United States, and to oppose by force the authority thereof.”
At a news conference in Miami, U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said officials decided to raid the warehouse and make the arrests Thursday because investigators had sufficient evidence and were confident they had fully developed the case. Acosta said authorities are confident that each arrested member of the cell “had intent to pose a threat.”
“You want to go and disrupt cells like this before they acquire the means to accomplish their goals,” Acosta said. “This is exactly the kind of case we should be investigating.”
Acosta said the group came to law enforcement’s attention when Batiste approached an individual about waging jihad inside the United States. This unidentified individual went to authorities with that information and later posed as an al-Qaida member, Acosta said.
He would not more fully describe the individual other than to say it was a person “who was working with us.”
Self-described Black Muslims
Residents living near the warehouse said the men taken into custody described themselves as Black Muslims and had tried to recruit young people to join their group. Tashawn Rose, 29, said they tried to recruit her younger brother and nephew for a karate class.
She said she talked to one of the men about a month ago. “They seemed brainwashed,” she said. “They said they had given their lives to Allah.”
Residents 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 for about a year.
Benjamin Williams, 17, said the group sometimes had young children with them. At times, he added, the men “would cover their faces. Sometimes they would wear things on their heads, like turbans.”
Security at the 110-floor Sears Tower, a Chicago landmark and the nation’s tallest building, was ramped up after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the 103rd-floor skydeck was closed for about a month and a half.
“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.
In addition to Batiste, the defendants were identified as Patrick Abraham, or “Brother Pat”; Burson Augustin, or “Brother B”; Stanley Grant Phanor, or “Brother Sunni”; Naudimar Herrera, or “Brother Naudy”; Lyglenson Lemorin, also known as “Brother Levi” or “Brother Levi-El”; and Rotschild Augustine, or “Brother Rot.”
Lemorin was arrested in Atlanta.
‘Not a violent boy,’ father says
Joseph Phanor, the father of defendant Stanley Grant Phanor, said he didn’t believe “anything they say about” his son being involved in a terrorist plot.
“This boy, he’s not a violent boy. He never got into trouble. ... He didn’t want to kill people,” the elder Phanor told The Associated Press.
He said his son and his friends studied the Bible together in Miami. “All I know is that they have a construction job there and they have a contract to do some construction job. That’s what he told me,” he said.
The person they believed to be an al-Qaida representative gave Batiste a digital video camera, which Batiste said he would use to record pictures of the North Miami Beach FBI building, the indictment said. At a March 26 meeting, it went on, Batiste and Burson Augustin provided the “al-Qaida representative” with photographs of the FBI building, as well as video footage of other Miami government buildings, and discussed the plot to bomb the FBI building.
But on May 24, the indictment said, Batiste told the “al-Qaida representative” that he was experiencing delays “because of various problems within his organization.” Batiste said he wanted to continue his mission and his relationship with al-Qaida nonetheless, the document said.
NBC News’ Pete Williams, Jim Popkin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.