MIAMI—They swore allegiance to al-Qaida, authorities charge, and were led by a "Moses-like figure" who carried a cane through his neighborhood here, wearing a cape or sometimes a bathrobe. They allegedly sought to sow death and terror, but ended up in leg irons instead.
The seven men arrested in an alleged terrorist plot thought they were conspiring with al-Qaida "to levy war against the United States" in attacks that would "be just as good or greater than 9/11," according to a federal indictment unsealed Friday.
The campaign was to begin with the bombing of the 110-story Sears Tower in Chicago, the indictment charges, though an FBI sting foiled the alleged plot long before it reached that point. Attacks on federal buildings in Miami and four other cities also were discussed, officials said.
"What we had was a situation where individuals in America made plans to hurt Americans," U.S. Attorney General Albert Gonzales said during a news conference in Washington.
But that's where it stopped—with initial plans, authorities said.
The men, allegedly led by Narseal Batiste, each swore an oath of fidelity to al-Qaida called a bayat but never met with an authentic representative of the group that was responsible for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to authorities.
They weren't able to obtain explosives and no weapons were found, officials said. In Chicago, police said there was no credible threat against the Sears Tower, and no arrests were made there.
"This group was more aspirational than operational," John Pistole, the FBI's deputy director, said of the group's alleged plot.
Authorities said the group had been infiltrated by a government informant, had been under surveillance for months and no longer posed a danger. But they stopped short of saying that every member had been arrested.
"I can tell you that the investigation continues," Gonzales said.
Other officials described the group as a distinct threat to national security and, at the same time, as something akin to the gang that couldn't think straight.
For the most part, authorities framed the case as one against a "homegrown cell" of terrorists, and said the seven could have inflicted great harm.
According to the indictment, Batiste, 32, called his men "soldiers" in an "Islamic army" that would wage a "full ground war."
He said he wanted to "kill all the devils that we can," officials said, and that he wanted most of his group to attend al-Qaida training this past April.
The suspects called the Liberty City, Fla., warehouse in which they met—and where most of them were arrested Thursday—"the embassy," authorities said.
"They lived and worked in the United States, enjoyed all the freedoms our great nation offers, yet they pledged their allegiance to al-Qaida," Pistole said. "Their goal was simple: Commit attacks against America."
Gonzales compared them to terrorists in Madrid, London and Toronto.
"Left unchecked, these homegrown terrorists may prove to be as dangerous as groups like al-Qaida," Gonzales said.
A tip from the public and a full-court press from an anti-terrorism task force frustrated the group's plan, he said.
"These men were unable to advance their deadly plot beyond the initial planning phase," Gonzales said.
"They did not believe the U.S. government had legal authority over them," Pistole said. "They were separatists."
The seven were fooled for months by a government informant who pretended to be an al-Qaida operative, according to the indictment.
They needed help acquiring everything from machine guns to rental vans and boots, even giving the informant a list of their shoe sizes, according to the indictment, and they were led by an eccentric man who called himself Brother Naz and Prince Manna.
A friend described Batiste as a "Moses-like" figure who would roam the neighborhood in odd clothing, carrying a crooked wooden cane as he recruited vulnerable young men.
"He had a resentment in his heart toward God," Sylvain Plantin said. "I felt something wasn't right about him."
Others said he was a martial arts devotee who sometimes wore camouflage and led his followers through late-night physical exercises.
The indictment identified the six other defendants as Patrick Abraham, 26; Burson Augustin, 21; Rotschild Augustine, 22; Naudimar Herrera, 22; Lyglenson Lemorin, 31; and Stanley Grant Phanor, 31.
None has made any substantive public comment since the arrests, but friends and relatives of some of them have expressed shock—and doubt over their guilt.
"I believe my husband is innocent of all the accusations against him," said Minerva Batiste, 34, the wife of the alleged ringleader.
Despite early reports to the contrary, the men didn't appear to be members of mainstream Muslim communities.
A close friend of one of the defendants said Batiste's teachings came from the Moorish Science Temple of America, an early 19th-century religion that blends Christianity, Judaism and Islam with a heavy influence on self-discipline through martial arts.
On Friday, their Liberty City neighborhood resembled a parking lot for television news trucks as dozens of reporters set up live shots in front of the arrest scene: a windowless, coral-colored, one-story warehouse.
Some residents watched the action, while others went about their business, saying they didn't mind the attention if the arrests made their neighborhood safer.
"Good, take them away," Daniel Bellamy said. "I just got out of the Army three years ago. If
I learned anything, it's that we have to stay alert and keep our eyes open. Always."
Five of the defendants—all except Phanor and Lemorin—appeared in federal court Friday afternoon in Miami, though they said nothing about the case.
The five, arrested Thursday in Liberty City and Little Haiti, were dressed in the muddy-brown jumpsuits that new federal prisoners wear. Chains restricted their movements. Batiste had a wispy beard and a shaved head.
No pleas were entered during the brief hearing. All responded in soft, respectful tones when U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick A. White asked about their financial situations. None spoke specifically about the case
They said they were self-employed or unemployed and had scarce financial resources. White appointed attorneys to represent them. The defendants will return to court next Friday.
A sixth suspect, Lemorin, was arrested Thursday in Atlanta and the seventh, Phanor, already was in state custody for allegedly violating probation by carrying a concealed weapon.
Abraham is an undocumented immigrant from Haiti; Lemorin is a permanent resident. The other five are U.S. citizens, officials said.
"The defendants are innocent until proven guilty," R. Alexander Acosta, the U.S. attorney in South Florida, said during a news conference in Miami.
The four-count indictment charges all seven with conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists, conspiracy to maliciously damage and destroy by means of an explosive and conspiracy to levy war against the United States.
If convicted, they face maximum prison sentences of 15 or 20 years on each charge.
According to the indictment:
_The plot began in November with Batiste recruiting the others for the mission "to wage
_On Dec. 16, Batiste met in a hotel with the confidential informant.
_The seven men pledged allegiance to al Qaida. Group members asked the phony al Qaida agent to provide machine guns, boots, uniforms and vehicles.
_Members of the group took reconnaissance photographs of the FBI's field office in North Miami Beach and shot video and still photos of the James Lawrence King Federal Justice Building, other federal courthouse buildings, the Federal Detention Center and the Miami Police Department in downtown Miami.
How serious were these threats and how close did the seven come to succeeding with their plans?
"They certainly had the will. They were searching for the way," Acosta said. "Our mission is to identify them . . . and prevent them from prosecuting their plan."
(Jennifer Babson, Evan S. Benn, Oscar Corral, Amy Driscoll, Susannah A. Nesmith, Charles Rabin and Nicholas Spangler of The Miami Herald contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TERROR ARRESTS
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060623 Sears Tower
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