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con science money

2006 Sears Tower plot

see also Seas of David

On 22 June 2006, seven men were arrested during an FBI raid on a warehouse on the outskirts of Miami and accused of being a home-grown terrorist cell plotting to blow up the Sears Tower and the FBI building in Miami. Although no links to outside terrorist groups were alleged, nor any weapons found, the arrests were the subject of a high level press briefing in Washington D.C. hosted by the Attorney-General and made headline news in Europe the following day. The Director of the FBI Robert Mueller cited the incident in a "Major Executive Speech" in Cleveland that afternoon entitled "Protecting America from Terrorist Attack: The Threat of Homegrown Terrorism".

According to the indictments, the group had been infiltrated for nearly a year by two paid FBI informants posing as al-Qaeda members. The warehouse they were in had been wired for surveillance and provided rent-free by the FBI since January, and the terrorist plots were discussed while smoking marijuana. Differences had broken out in April between the leaders, causing one to be arrested for shooting a follower of the other.

All seven were denied bail since their arrest. Their trial began on 2 October 2007 with the threat of up to 70 years in prison if convicted of all charges, and ended on 13 December with one defendant acquitted and the jury unable to return a verdict on the other six, for whom a retrial was scheduled for 7 January 2008. On April 16, 2008, the federal judge in the case declared a second mistrial for the six remaining defendants after the jury had been deadlocked for 13 days.

Press coverage of the arrests

The arrests were announced on 23 June at a high level press briefing in Washington D.C. by the Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales, the Deputy Director of the FBI John S. Pistole, and an Assistant Attorney-General Alice S. Fisher.

At the press conference, the Attorney-General and the Deputy Director took questions from reporters:

Question: Did any of the men have any actual contact with any members of al-Qaeda that you know of?
Attorney-General: The answer to that is "No".
Question: Did they have any means to carry out this plot? I mean, did you find any explosives, weapons?
Attorney-General: You raise a good point... We took action when we had enough evidence.
Question: Was there anything against the Sears Tower other than this one apparent, just, kind of mention of the Sears Tower? It doesn't look like they ever took pictures or...
Deputy Director of the FBI: One of the individuals was familiar with the Sears Tower, had worked in Chicago, and was familiar with the tower. But in terms of the plans, it was more aspirational than operational.

He assured the public that the men posed no actual danger because their plot had been caught in "its earliest stages", and that the group's only source of money and weapons would have been the undercover FBI agent.

The following week the incident was featured on The Daily Show, where Jon Stewart quipped: "Now, I am not a general. I don't have any association with any military academy. But I believe that if you are going to wage a full ground war against the United States, you need to field at least as many people as, say, a softball team."

Democracy Now interviewed two community activists in Miami on 26 June who summed up local reaction to the indictments:

[A] lot of show has been made about the militaristic boots that they had... [I]t turns out... the FBI bought them the boots. If you look at the indictment, the biggest piece of evidence... is that the group may have taken pictures of a bunch of targets in South Florida. But the guys couldn't afford their own cameras, so the federal government bought them the cameras... The federal government rented them the cars that they needed to get downtown in order to take the pictures.

In addition... the men provided the FBI informant with a list of things they needed in order to blow up these buildings, but in the list they didn't include any explosives or any materials which could be used to make explosives. So now everyone in Liberty City is joking that the guys were going to kick down the FBI building with their new boots, because they didn't have any devices which could have been used to explode...

In his afternoon speech, the Director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, cited the case to illustrate how his department's policies were working. He also made reference to the case of Kevin James, the Toledo terror plot, and the 2006 Toronto terrorism case.

The people and the charges

Those indicted on 22 June were Narseal Batiste (considered the ring-leader), Patrick Abraham, Stanley Phanor, Naudimar Herrera, Burson Augustin, Lyglenson Lemorin, and Rotschild Augustine. Five were U.S. citizens, one a legal immigrant from Haiti, and the last an illegal alien originally from Haiti. They were accused of planning to levy a "full ground war" against the United States.

The government lawyer said that the prosecution was being brought under rather than , since the former requires only that the accused believe they were conspiring in a terrorist act, even if they were actually being deceived by an informant.

Also involved was Charles James Stewart of the Moorish Science Temple in Chicago, a convicted rapist who was paid through the FBI informant to join the group in April. He subsequently shot one of Batiste's followers and then became a witness against him and his supporters.

The two FBI informants, both Middle Eastern-born, were known as CW1, a Miami resident who had previous arrests for assault and marijuana possession, and CW2, who had worked for the FBI for six years and was awaiting approval of his petition for political asylum in the United States.

Narseal Batiste (also known by some as "Prinze Nas"), 32, was a father of four and a martial arts enthusiast, who had been a member of the Guardian Angels in Chicago.

FBI payments

  • The first informant, CW1, received $10,500 for his services and $8,815 in expenses.
  • The second informant, CW2, received $17,000 and approval of his petition for political asylum in the United States.
  • Expenses for Charles James Stewart and his wife to travel from Chicago to Miami came to $3,500
  • Rent paid on the warehouse used for training from January to June.

The trial information revised these figures

  • First informant, Abbas al Saidi, received $40,000.
  • Second informant, Elie Assad, received $80,000.

The trial

The trial of the "Liberty City 7" is in the same courthouse where Jose Padilla was convicted. It began on 2 October 2007 under U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard with prosecutors in possession of 15,000 FBI recordings including Narseal Batiste saying he would make sure no one survived destruction of the 110-story Sears Tower, and a ceremony in which each member of the group swears allegiance to al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. The defense claimed that the men played along with the talk by the FBI informants of terrorist plots in the hope of obtaining money, and that they never constituted a credible terrorist threat.

In the second week of the trial two of the jurors were dismissed after a police counterterrorism pamphlet was found in the jury room.

The defense rested its case on 20 November, and testimony ended a week later with the prosecutor alleging that, although they didn't have the means, the defendants "were a ready-made terrorist cell here for al-Qaida" who sought to use their attacks on the Sears Tower to spark an insurrection, topple the government, and bring about the destruction of the United States. The defense argument was that the men were playing along with the FBI agents in order to con for money.

After nine days of deliberations, the jury had acquitted one of the men, Lyglenson Lemorin who had left the group and moved to Atlanta months before the arrests, were unable to reach a verdict on the other six. The judge declared a mistrial, and the jury for a retrial was scheduled to be picked after 7 January 2008.

On April 16, 2008, the federal judge in the case declared a second mistrial for the six remaining defendants after the jury had been deadlocked for 13 days.

References

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