Statements given to the FBI by six of the seven men accused of plotting to destroy Chicago’s Sears Tower and other buildings indicate that some didn’t believe the talk of joining up with al-Qaida and others were motivated by money rather than Islamic radicalism.
Some were clearly bewildered by what had happened to them. One even asked the FBI agents interrogating him whether he could have some of the marijuana he had been carrying, according court documents reviewed by The Associated Press.
That defendant, 23-year-old Naudimar Herrera, asked for “a rub of my green” after the agents showed him a videotape of the group swearing loyalty to al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden, at the direction of an FBI informant the men knew as Mohammed.
“Herrera said that he needed the substance to calm his nerves ... Herrera was provided with a bottle of water to drink and was allowed to take a restroom break,” an FBI summary said.
The FBI statements are key pieces of evidence in a case scheduled to go to trial this fall. The group, known as the “Liberty City Seven” after the impoverished neighborhood where they were based, has been in custody since their June 2006 arrests on charges of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and conspiring to wage war against the United States.
Prosecutors say they discussed blowing up the Sears Tower and destroying FBI offices and other buildings in Miami, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Washington. Authorities have said their purported plot never moved beyond the preliminary stages and the group never possessed explosives or other weapons to carry it out, but insist the men were serious about their intentions.
Suspects play down roles
The seven men have pleaded not guilty to charges that carry combined maximum sentences of some 70 years in federal prison.
Defense attorneys are asking a federal judge to throw out their statements to the FBI, mainly over claims they were not truly voluntary or that some defendants asked for lawyers but were interrogated without one present. A July 16 hearing is scheduled on those and other motions.
In the statements, some of the men appear to play down their roles or minimize what they knew about the purported bombing plots. The alleged ringleader, 33-year-old Narseal Batiste, told the FBI that he only played along with joining al-Qaida so he could extort as much as $50,000 from Mohammed.
“Batiste stated that during his relationship with Mohammed that he agreed to blow up buildings, but that was not his intention,” the summary said.
'I thought it was a joke'
Much of the evidence consists of FBI audio and video surveillance, including the al-Qaida allegiance or “bayat” ceremony staged by Mohammed on March 10, 2006, at a warehouse the group used as a headquarters.
“I thought it was a joke and I didn’t take it serious,” said Rotschild Augustine, 23, in a written statement. “I felt as though we were all manipulated and (forced) to do things that didn’t feel right ... I’m just mad I even ended up meeting with these people and getting me and the rest of us into this situation and being fooled.”
Another defendant, 32-year-old Lyglenson Lemorin, told FBI agents he grew “fearful” after the ceremony and that he “knew nothing good would come from this. Lemorin has seen al-Qaida on TV and advised that ’they do killing’ and that he does not want to be associated with that,” an FBI summary said.
Group ready to wage war?
Prosecutors scoff at such claims, noting in court papers that members of the group later discussed a plot to conduct coordinated attacks against FBI buildings in five cities and use land Batiste’s family owned in Louisiana as a training camp. They also took video and photos of potential targets in the Miami area, including the FBI office, a large downtown federal building and a National Guard Armory.
“Batiste and the other defendants eagerly embraced and pledged to support al-Qaida, and they carried out surveillance and other activities in specific support of an identified al-Qaida plot,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacqueline Arango in court documents.
Members of the group would often go paintball shooting as a form of military training, and once used a U.S. flag for target practice, defendant Burson Augustin, 22, told the FBI.
There was also discussion of overthrowing the U.S. government, defendant Patrick Abraham told the FBI. Abraham, 27, also said he suggested that Mohammed be investigated by the group, which resulted in Mohammed being strip-searched and driven to a meeting with Batiste in the Florida Keys town of Islamorada.
After that, the group trusted Mohammed once again.
“Abraham attended several meetings with Batiste and Brother Mohammed where Batiste discussed a plan to take down the Sears Tower in Chicago and wage war with the U.S. government,” the FBI summary of Abraham’s interview said.