Black Muslim group members arrested in terrorism plot worshipped and trained in warehouse
June 23, 2006
WAR ON TERRORISM
Terrorism raid targets a warehouse in Miami
FBI agents arrested seven men in what is being described as a conspiracy to attack targets in the U.S., including the Sears Tower. Authorities said the suspects posed no immediate threat to South Florida.
BY DAVID OVALLE, EVAN S. BENN, LARRY LEBOWITZ AND LUISA YANEZMore photos
Seven men, some of whom lived in a Liberty City warehouse, have been arrested as suspected homegrown al Qaeda sympathizers who discussed blowing up Chicago's Sears Tower and FBI headquarters in Miami-Dade, multiple sources said on Thursday.
They posed no immediate danger to the community, federal officials said Thursday. Details will be revealed this morning at news conferences in Washington and Miami.
A law enforcement source said the group had photographs of the Sears Tower, the FBI's Miami field office and Miami police headquarters.
Agents must now figure out if the men were actually capable of mounting attacks. Several sources described them as homegrown wannabes with no known connection to foreign terrorists. No explosives or guns were found, sources said.
Officials didn't release the names of the men Thursday. Law enforcement sources said some of the men's discussions have been heard on wiretaps.
Five of those arrested are U.S. citizens, one is a resident alien and one is an illegal immigrant, a law enforcement source told The Miami Herald on condition of anonymity.
Citing an investigation that began months before Thursday's raid, the source said the group talked about an attack on the Sears Tower and the FBI headquarters in North Miami Beach -- but that they had no "overt explosives or other things."
The group thought that they "were doing [the attacks] in conjunction with al Qaeda" but were really dealing with undercover law enforcement, the official said.
It was "pretty much talk, we were on top of them," the source said.
Another law enforcement source said the group had no actual ties to al Qaeda.
Local officials said residents shouldn't be concerned about attending today's downtown victory parade for the Miami Heat.
"We want everyone to feel comfortable that their safety is not at risk while attending the parade and festivities," said Miami-Dade Police Director Robert Parker.
Family identified one of the men arrested as Stanley Phanor, 31, who called the warehouse the group's place of worship.
According to Stanley's sister, the group, which formed about a year ago, called itself the Seas of David. The 40 to 50 members consider themselves "soldiers of God" and are against the war in Iraq. Like soldiers, they incorporate discipline into their daily lives: exercise, no drinking, no drugs and no meat.
Last year, Marlene Phanor said, her brother and other members of the group drove to Chicago.
Added Phanor's mother, also named Marlene Phanor: "If my son were a terrorist, the earth would open up and swallow me now."
Another man was identified by his godmother as Nasir Baptiste, 32, according to Herald news partner WFOR-CBS4. The godmother, Ariane Webster, insisted Baptiste wasn't involved in any terror activity. She said he is a construction worker and martial arts expert.
FBI agents also took Baptiste's wife to their office for questioning Thursday.
Miami police and the FBI declined to comment. The names of the two men could not be independently verified.
DRESSED IN FATIGUES
Neighbors near the warehouse described the men as dressing in fatigues and talking about giving their lives to God.
"They said it was a karate school," Benjamin Williams, 17, said of the warehouse. "They used to be out around 11 at night, practicing like they were in the military or something . . . push-ups, jumping jacks and jumping over chairs."
Another neighbor said: "They would be gone all day and come back at night to the warehouse to sleep. They sold shampoo and hair grease on the street."
News of the raid immediately reverberated around the nation. FBI Director Robert Mueller appeared on CNN but offered few details.
"But whenever we undertake an operation like this, we would not do it without the approval of a judge. We've got search warrants and arrest warrants and the like," Mueller told host Larry King.
MOVING IN WITH FORCE
Federal agents, assisted by Miami police's SWAT team, swarmed in Thursday afternoon, cordoning off several blocks around the building at 6260 NW 15th Ave., in the Liberty Square housing project, known by locals as Pork-n-Beans.
Cedric Thomas, a co-owner of Thomas Produce Market, said the area around his store was teeming with federal agents.
"There is a ton of guys in uniforms moving around, blocking the streets," said Thomas, whose store, a Liberty City institution, is at 1376 NW 62nd St., near the area cordoned off by police.
The agents found the entrance to the warehouse sealed up by a roll-down hurricane protection metal door, one neighbor said. They cut through the metal door with a torch, he said.
A company called Greenlands Realty Inc., run by George Mobassaleh, owns the building.
Mobassaleh told his attorney he didn't want to speak to the media about the raid.
"He did tell me that as far as he knows, these were just tenants," attorney Louis Terminello said.
Phanor was arrested earlier this week for driving without a license. He has an outstanding probation violation for carrying a concealed firearm.
The son of Haitian parents, he was born in Miami, attended Edison Senior High and finished high school in Tallahassee.
Phanor and all his friends worked for a construction company. They called each other "brother," Marlene Phanor said. She identified the company as Azteca-Acme Organizations, Inc.
A message left at the company wasn't returned late Thursday.
Phanor and his friends had been living in the warehouse for about eight months, and they often fed homeless people and helped them find jobs, his sister said.
"All of them worked so hard," she said.
South Florida has been at the center of several key terrorism cases, starting with the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. As many as 14 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, lived in Broward County in the weeks before the hijacking.
Jose Padilla, who was arrested in Chicago in 2002 amid accusations that he had planned to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" on American soil, attended a mosque in Broward County in the early 1990s.
Adnan El Shukrijumah, a former Broward Community College student of Saudi descent, is still the subject of a global manhunt due to his alleged ties to al Qaeda. Adnan El Shukrijumah disappeared from South Florida weeks before the 9/11 attacks.
Miami Herald staff writers Andrea Robinson, Lesley Clark, Nicholas Spangler, Gary Fineout, Trenton Daniel, Susannah A. Nesmith, Tere Figueras-Negrete, Kathleen McGrory, Alfonso Chardy and Andrea Torres contributed to this report.
-------------June 23, 2006 http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/14882995.htm
The Federal Bureau of Investigation's deputy director said today that a plot to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago by seven Miami men now facing federal conspiracy charges was "more aspirational than operational," but illustrated the threat posed by small groups without connections to international terror networks.
"These are members of a homegrown terrorist cell," said John S. Pistole, the F.B.I.'s deputy director. "Their goal was simple: to accomplish attacks against America."
"We pre-empted their plot," he said.
A federal indictment handed up on Thursday and released today said the group had sought help for their plot from a man they believed to be a representative of Al Qaeda, but who actually was an informer. They asked him for money, weapons, binoculars and boots and in return pledged loyalty to Al Qaeda and offered to assist in a supposed plot to blow up federal buildings in five cities.
Mr. Pistole said the group had no actual connection to Al Qaeda.
It was unclear from the indictment who suggested the broader plot. But Mr. Pistole said at a news conference in Washington today that the group's ringleader, Narseal Batiste, "made the first indication of an intent to make an attack" against an F.B.I. office in North Miami.
The men were charged with conspiring to support a terrorist group, to wage war against the United States and to use explosives to damage or destroy the Sears Tower and the F.B.I. building.
The only overt acts described in the indictment were swearing oaths of allegiance to Al Qaeda and taking video footage of the F.B.I. office.
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said the men had posed no actual danger because their plot had been caught in "its earliest stages."
"Because of the fine work by law enforcement, these men were unable to advance their deadly plot beyond the initial planning stage," he said.
Mr. Gonzales said that group represented a "new brand of terrorism" created by "the convergence of globalization and technology."
"Today, terrorist threats may come from smaller, more loosely defined cells who are not affiliated with Al Qaeda, but who are inspired by a violent jihadist message, and left unchecked, these homegrown terrorists may prove to be as dangerous as groups like Al Qaeda," he said.
The seven men, who lived in a windowless, one-story warehouse that was raided by F.B.I. agents on Thursday, included five American citizens, one permanent legal resident and one illegal immigrant from Haiti, according to prosecutors.
The bulk of the indictment lists a series of meetings beginning Dec. 16 last year between Mr. Batiste and the purported representative of Al Qaeda, in which Mr. Batiste asked for aid in waging "a full ground war" against the United States, according to the indictment.
Mr. Batiste, whose nicknames were listed in the indictment as "Brother Naz" and "Prince Manna," was described as the ringleader by Mr. Gonzales.
Mr. Batiste said his "soldiers" intended "to 'kill all the devils we can,' in a mission that would 'be just as good or greater than 9/11,' beginning with the destruction of the Sears Tower," the indictment said.
But in the final meeting detailed in the indictment, on May 24, Mr. Batiste told the informer that "he was experiencing delays because of various problems within his organization," although he said he wanted to continue his mission and to support Al Qaeda.
The aid he sought from Al Qaeda included $50,000 in cash, training, firearms, vehicles, radios, binoculars, bullet-proof vests and military boots. The boots were the only items delivered, after a meeting in which Mr. Batiste provided shoe sizes, according to the indictment. Mr. Batiste was also given the digital video camera that he used to take pictures of the F.B.I. building.
The other men indicted were Patrick Abraham, Stanley Grant Phano, Naudimar Herrera, Burson Augustin, Lyglenson Lemorin and Rothschild Augustin. All seven men pledged loyalty to Al Qaeda, according to the indictment, but the others besides Mr. Batiste are described only as driving him or the informer places or as attending meetings between the two.
In a news conference in Miami, United States Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said the men had "lived in the United States for most of their lives, but developed a hatred for America."
Mr. Pistole said the members of the group shared a "common ideology," although he did not say what that was. He called them "separatists in the sense of not believing that the United States had the authority to enforce certain laws against them"
Neighbors of the warehouse in the Liberty City section of Miami described the men as a militaristic group in their teens and 20's, but one that did not seem threatening. One neighbor interviewed by The Associated Press said they seemed "brainwashed."
"They would come out late at night and exercise," Tashawn Rose, 29, told the news service. It seemed like a military boot camp that they were working on there. They would come out and stand guard."
CNN broadcast today an interview with a young man named Corey who said he had been part of the group that lived in the warehouse, which CNN said he described as "the Seas of David." He said the group was peaceful, although he called its members "soldiers."
"We are not terrorists," he said.
Mr. Acosta said that the investigation began when Mr. Batiste tried to recruit someone in the community who alerted the South Florida Terrorism Task Force, an interagency group.
He said that while the group had obtained no explosives, it would be a mistake to minimize the danger it posed. "They certainly had the will," he said. "They were searching for the way."
He added, "Our mission is to disrupt these cells if possible before they acquire the capability to implement their plans."