|THE ringleader of the seven men accused of plotting to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago was a "Moses-like figure" who carried a crooked cane and wore a cape as he sought to recruit followers to a religious cult called the Seas of David.
Narseal Batiste, 32, a martial arts enthusiast, led his oddball group of what he called "soldiers" seeking to wage a "full ground war" against America, according to charges brought last week.
The father of four, known to his followers as Prinze Naz, sometimes wore a bathrobe when entering the shabby warehouse in Miami that FBI officials claim was the base of the would-be terrorists.
Alberto Gonzales, the US attorney-general, claimed the arrested men, five from the US and two from Haiti, were inspired by a "violent jihadist message". Dick Cheney, the vice-president, called the group a "very real threat".
Batiste and his followers swore an oath of allegiance to Al-Qaeda and requested help from an undercover agent to buy weapons, explosives and uniforms, according to the indictment. He sought $50,000 to fund his mission and boasted that his attacks would be "as good or greater than 9/11".
Batiste's targets were said to have included the Miami FBI building as well as the Sears Tower, America's tallest building. He was secretly recorded and filmed by the FBI, which infiltrated the group after a tip-off from a member of the public.
No weapons or explosives have been found at the windowless warehouse that Batiste called the "temple" in a rundown area of Miami.
Batiste grew up in Chicago and, as a young man, joined the Guardian Angels, a beret-wearing citizens' crime prevention group. In 1994 he told his father, a former preacher, that he was "joining the Muslims" but his beliefs bear little relation to orthodox Islam.
A close friend said his teachings came from the Moorish Science Temple of America, an early 20th century religion founded by the Noble Drew Ali, a wandering African-American circus magician who claimed to have been raised by Cherokee Indians and to have learnt "high magic" in Egypt. Ali went on to style himself an "angel" and prophet of Allah.
The Seas of David borrows tenets from Judaism and Christianity as well as Islam and emphasises self-discipline through martial arts.
Batiste was known to hate President George W Bush and the war in Iraq. Neighbours would see his followers practising martial arts but paid little attention to them. "It seemed like a military boot camp," said one.
Batiste's wife Minerva said yesterday: "I believe my husband is innocent of all charges."
|Official: Sears Tower Never in Imminent Danger|
|By VOA News
24 June 2006
A Chicago police official says there was never any imminent threat to the Sears Tower, the tallest building in the U.S., despite allegations that seven men arrested this week were planning to attack it.
|The Sears Tower|
Chicago Police Superintendent Phil Cline said the investigation continues, but the Sears Tower has been found to be secure and free of explosives.
The suspects' leader, Chicago native Narseal Batiste, and six other men are accused of plotting to attack the Sears Tower and several other buildings, including FBI offices in five cities. Batiste appeared Friday before a judge in Miami, Florida, with four other suspects.
|This undated photo provided by the U.S. Attorney's Office shows Narseal Batiste|
The indictment says he asked an FBI informant posing as a member of al-Qaida for guns, uniforms, radios and $50,000 in cash to wage a holy war against the U.S. that would be "just as good or greater" than the September 11, 2001 attacks.
A friend of one of the defendants says the group was a sect based on an early 19th century religion that combines Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Five of the suspects are U.S. citizens. The other two men are from Haiti - one a permanent resident, the other an illegal immigrant.
Several al-Qaida terrorists who carried out the September 11 attacks had lived and trained in the South Florida area.
US warns of rise in domestic terror cells
AG says group of seven targeted government
By Charlie Savage and Bryan Bender, Globe Staff | June 24, 2006
WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales yesterday warned of a growing threat from "homegrown" terrorist cells who have no links to Al Qaeda, as more details emerged about seven South Florida men charged with plotting to bomb the Sears Tower in Chicago and an FBI building in Miami.
Gonzales said five of the seven men were American citizens, would-be terrorists who decided to go to war against the US government. He compared the men to a group of Canadian citizens arrested earlier this month in Toronto for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks in Canada, and to terror cells of British and Spanish citizens responsible for deadly bombings in London and Madrid.
"The terrorists and suspected terrorists in Madrid and London and Toronto were not sleeper operatives sent on suicide missions," Gonzales said. "They were students and business people and members of the community. They were persons who, for whatever reason, came to view their home country as the enemy. And it's a problem that we face here in the United States as well."
The men, arraigned yesterday in Miami under heavy security, are members of a religious group who neighbors say lived and practiced martial arts in a warehouse in the city's hardscrabble Liberty City neighborhood. Gonzales said that one suspect is a legal immigrant from an unspecified country, and one is a citizen of Haiti who was living in the country illegally.
According to the indictment, Narseal Batiste , a US citizen identified as the group's leader, recruited the other six to join him in preparing to carry out terrorist attacks, including assaults on the 108-floor Sears Tower -- the nation's tallest skyscraper -- and FBI buildings as well as local government offices in Miami-Dade County. John Pistole , the deputy director of the FBI, said the group had come to believe that the US government is illegitimate.
"They were separatists in the sense of not believing that the US government had the legal authority to enforce certain laws against them, and so it was from that ideology that some of this stems," Pistole said at the press conference. Little was known about the religious group, such as its origin or membership, and the indictment had few other details about it or the background of the suspects.
Despite the government's claims, the indictment held scant evidence that the group was anywhere close to capable of attacking the Sears Tower or any other building. They had no access to explosives and no real contact with Al Qaeda, and they were incapable of obtaining even basic equipment on their own, such as boots.
Batiste asked the informant to provide military boots for the group, and gave him a list of their shoe sizes, the indictment said. The informant also was asked to help the men acquire a video camera, a rental car, weapons, binoculars, radios, bulletproof vests, and $50,000 in cash, it said.
"In terms of plans, it was more aspirational than operational," Pistole asserted.
According to the indictment, the plot began around December 2005 when Batiste met with the undercover informant, whom he believed to be an Al Qaeda operative. Batiste asked the informant for funding, equipment, and training to launch the attacks; eventually, all seven suspects swore allegiance to Al Qaeda, the indictment said.
In an indication that the government may have secretly taped some of the group's discussions, the indictment quotes Batiste declaring his intention to wage a "full ground war" against the United States in order to "kill all the devils we can." The operation, he is quoted as saying, would be "just as good or greater than 9/11."
The group once discussed destroying the Sears Tower, according to the indictment. They also allegedly discussed bombing FBI buildings in North Miami Beach and four other cities, and videotaped several of the local government buildings in Miami-Dade County.
Gonzales said the group intended to carry out the attacks and had taken preliminary steps toward that goal. He said the plot was disrupted under a Justice Department strategy to arrest would-be terrorists as soon as it has gathered enough evidence to convict them of a crime.
In a later briefing with reporters, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty added that the government would rather be criticized for moving too aggressively than face blame for allowing an attack to happen.
"We have to do everything within our power to identify the risks and to stop them at the earliest stages of planning," McNulty said. "We have to have a preventative approach."
The timing of the arrests raised eyebrows among some Bush administration critics because they coincided with a New York Times article revealing that the administration has been secretly tapping into a vast financial database containing Americans' banking transactions, searching for evidence of terrorist activity without individual court warrants.
The White House knew about the banking story in advance because it had been talking with The Times, urging the paper not to publish the information. Agents made the Miami arrests, meanwhile, a month after the final event cited in the indictment -- a conversation in which Batiste allegely told the informant that "he was experiencing delays [in the mission] because of various problems within his organization."
Congressman Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Malden and a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a phone interview yesterday that he suspected the Bush administration used the arrests as a distraction from headlines about the secret banking surveillance program, which he said was probably illegal.
Gonzales said the administration believed the banking program was legal, and said the decision to arrest the men was made "by the folks in Miami, by the career folks, the career investigators, the career prosecutors" and not by political appointees in Washington.
Later, McNulty said "there is no connection" between the Miami arrests and the banking surveillance story. "The [terrorism] case came forward when it was ready."
In a Miami press conference, US Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said the decision to arrest the men on Thursday was based on law enforcement considerations, including ensuring they had enough evidence to indict the men, and making sure authorities had identified all of the alleged conspirators.
In addition to Batiste, the indictment named Patrick Abraham , Stanley Grant Phanor , Naudimar Herrera , Burson Augustin , Lyglenson Lemorin and Rotschild Augustine as codefendants. The Justice Department did not specifiy which two were not US citizens.
There were conflicting reports from neighbors in Miami about whether the group considered themselves to be Muslims or some other kind of spiritual sect.
Although several early media reports quoted an unnamed law enforcement source describing the group as "radical Muslims," the indictment did not mention any religious affiliation. A local television station interviewed a relative of one of the men who said that they studied the Bible, not the Koran, and that they called their headquarters a "temple," not a mosque.
American Muslim civil rights groups said the group had been unknown to the Muslim community before they were arrested.