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Homegrown terrorists "a really big threat" -Jihad plot "beginning of many more... to come"

June 23, 2006

Analyst: Homegrown terrorists a very big threat

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A federal indictment unveiled Friday alleges seven men in Miami were engaged in a terrorist plot to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago, Illinois, and other U.S. government buildings in Miami, Florida.

Friday on "American Morning," CNN's Soledad O'Brien spoke with CNN security analyst Clark Kent Ervin, former inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security and author of the book "Open Target," about possible homegrown terrorist threats to the United States.

O'BRIEN: Tell me a little bit about the threat from homegrown terrorists, because it doesn't sound like they necessarily have a real definite connection to al Qaeda, at least at this point.

ERVIN: The biggest fear has always been homegrown terrorists, simply because they look and act like you and me. They fly under the radar screen. The FBI, we're told, knows of about 1,000 al Qaeda sympathizers here in the country, and about 300 extremists are under surveillance. So it's a very big threat indeed.

O'BRIEN: At the same time, the descriptions and the eyewitness statements seem to contradict everything we know about al Qaeda. Al Qaeda seems to want to fly beneath the radar, try to assimilate as much as possible. These guys walking around, in some cases, by witness descriptions, covered their entire faces except for their eyes, standing outside the building in a very militaristic way.

ERVIN: It could be, of course, this is a homegrown terror cell that's just not very good. You know, one of the problems is that there are these cells around the country. ... Some of them are not very good at hiding. On the other hand, the fact that they were so conspicuous could, indeed, suggest that they weren't terrorists at all. (Watch the FBI director's take on the threat from homegrown terrorism -- 2:24)

O'BRIEN: If, indeed, they are a homegrown terror group, a group, I guess, inspired by what's happening overseas, maybe inspired by al Qaeda, is this a turning point, do you think? Because as you point out, suddenly you don't need to worry about the visa issues. You don't need to worry about the language difficulties. You don't need to worry, frankly, about sticking out like a sore thumb in a community.

ERVIN: Well, that's exactly right. You know, al Qaeda knows that we all, whether we admit it or not, have a stereotype in our minds about what a terrorist looks like. And so they are actively -- we know this -- seeking to recruit Anglo-Americans, Hispanic-Americans. They have also been attracted to African-Americans, and we know that African-American males are disproportionately represented in prisons. And many of them have been converted to Islam, if not radical Islam. So this is a major issue. And if this turns out to be a homegrown-terror plot, this may be the beginning of many more things of this nature to come.


Terror suspects appear in court


FEDERAL FORCE: Agents swooped down on a warehouse in Liberty City. No explosives or weapons were found. PETER ANDREW BOSCH/MIAMI HERALD STAFF FEDERAL FORCE: Agents swooped down on a warehouse in Liberty City. No explosives or weapons were found. More photos

Five of the seven men arrested in an alleged terrorist plot to blow up the Sears Tower and other buildings appeared in federal court in Miami this afternoon, but said nothing substantive about the highly publicized case.

According to a federal indictment, all seven men believed they were conspiring with al Qaeda "to levy war against the United States" in attacks that would "be just as good or greater than 9/11."

The campaign, which never advanced beyond the discussion stage, would begin with the bombing of the 110-story Sears Tower in Chicago, according to the indictment.

The group's leader, identified as Narseal Batiste, allegedly said he wanted to "kill all the devils that we can," the indictment said.

They never dealt with anyone from al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, though they met repeatedly with a government informant pretending to represent al Qaeda and swore oaths of fidelity to the group, officials said.

"These men were unable to advance their deadly plot beyond the initial planning phase," U.S. Attorney General Albert Gonzales said this morning during a news conference in Washington.

Five of the seven were arrested Thursday in Liberty City, according to federal officials.

Appearing in court this afternoon were those five: Batiste, Patrick Abraham, Naudimar Herrera, Burson Augustin and Rotschild Augustine.

All were dressed in the muddy brown jumpsuits worn by new federal prisoners. Chains restricted their movements. Batiste had a wispy beard and a shaved head.

No pleas were entered during the brief hearing. None of the five issued any outbursts or spoke about the cases. All responded in soft, respectful tones when U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick A. White asked about their resources.

They said they were self-employed or unemployed and had scarce financial support. White appointed attorneys to represent them. The defendants will return to court next Friday.

A sixth suspect, Lyglenson Lemorin, was arrested Thursday in Atlanta and the seventh, Stanley Grant Phanor, already was in state custody on a violation of probation.

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 earlier today during a separate news conference in Miami.

Authorities emphasized that the public was not in danger and all activities -- including today's downtown Miami parade in honor of the Miami Heat's NBA championship -- should proceed without undue alarm.

"There is no cause for concern," said John Timoney, Miami's police chief. "People should come [to the parade], bring their kids, bring their families. It's perfectly safe."

Still, authorities stopped short of saying that every member of the group had been arrested.

"I can tell you that the investigation continues," Gonzales said.

Federal officials framed the case as one against "homegrown terrorists" who were infiltrated by an informant before they could take action, but said the seven could have posed a significant danger.

Batiste called them "soldiers" in an "Islamic army" that would wage a "full ground war" against the United States, according to the indictment. The suspects called the Liberty City warehouse in which they met "the embassy," officials said.

Batiste allegedly said he wanted to attend al Qaeda training, along with five of his "soldiers," during the second week of April.

He was known to his alleged followers as Brother Naz and Prince Manna, according to the indictment.

"Left unchecked, these homegrown terrorists may prove to be as dangerous as groups like al Qaeda . . .," Gonzales said, comparing them to terrorists in Madrid, London and Toronto. "What we had was a situation where individuals in America made plans to hurt Americans."

The motive?

"They did not believe the U.S. government had legal authority over them," said John Pistole, the FBI's deputy director. "They were separatists."

He called the seven a "homegrown cell.

"They lived and worked in the United States, enjoyed all the freedoms our great nation offers, yet they pledged their allegiance to Al Qaeda," Pistole said. "Their goal was simple: commit attacks against America."

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, the suspects face maximum prison sentences of 15 or 20 years on each charge.

The indictment claimed that the seven men each pledged an oath of allegiance -- called a bayat -- to al Qaeda and believed they were dealing with a representative of the terrorist group.

In fact, they were meeting with the government informant, federal officials said.

They were not able to obtain explosives and no weapons were found, according to authorities.

"It was more aspirational than operational," said Pistole, the FBI's deputy director.

The group, however, asked the supposed al Qaeda representative to provide machine guns, boots, uniforms and vehicles, the indictment said.

And group members 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, according to the indictment.

They also discussed a plot to bomb FBI buildings in four other cities, the indictment charged.

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."

He did not respond directly when asked if all members of the group had been arrested.

"We are confident we have identified every individual who had the intent [of harming the country]," Acosta said.

Pistole, the FBI official, said the case was broken through a tip from the public.

"They came to our attention through people who were alert in the community," he said.

Though one or more of the seven apparently called themselves Muslims, the Council on American-Islamic Relations urged Americans not to draw any sweeping negative conclusions about the religion and those who practice it.

"The American Muslim community is extremely concerned about these disturbing reports," Parvez Ahmed, the group's national board chairman, said in a prepared statement. "We stand with local and national law enforcement authorities in seeking to keep our nation safe and secure."

He said that the council is urging police departments nationwide to step up patrols near mosques and other Islamic institutions to help prevent any possible backlash from these arrests.

All of the following material comes from the federal indictment and could not be independently confirmed:

The plot allegedly began in November, with Batiste recruiting the others for a mission "to wage war" against the U.S. government.

On Dec. 16, Batiste met in a hotel with the confidential government informant who was posing as an al Qaeda representative. Batiste told the informant that he was organizing a mission to build an "Islamic army" to wage jihad.

They pledged an oath to al Qaeda and supported a purported mission to destroy the Sears building and FBI buildings in Miami and elsewhere in the United States.

They took photographs of the FBI Miami field office in North Miami Beach as well as video and photos of the federal courthouse complex, detention center and clerks office in downtown Miami.

Batiste gave the supposed al Qaeda representative a shopping list of materials he needed -- boots, uniforms, machine guns, radios and vehicles.

Six days later, Batiste outlined his mission to wage war against the U.S. government from within using an army of his "soldiers" to help destroy the Sears Tower. He also gave the informant a list of shoe sizes for his soldiers.

On Dec. 29, the informant delivered the military boots to Batiste, who expanded his shopping list to include radios, binoculars, bulletproof vests, firearms, vehicles and $50,000 in cash.

On Jan. 28, three more members of the group -- Abraham, Herrera and Augustine -- met with the supposed al Qaeda representative in Miami-Dade to exchange cars before driving to Islamorada for a meeting with Batiste.

Abraham and Herrera drove the al Qauda representative to Islamorada. Another member of the group, Phanor, followed in another vehicle.

On March 10, Batiste swore a loyalty oath to al Qaeda during a meeting with the informant that was witnessed by Lemorin.

The other six members of the group swore loyalty oaths to al Qaeda on March 16, the same day they discussed with the informant a plot to bomb FBI buildings in five cities.

Herald staff writers Oscar Corral, Amy Driscoll, Susannah A. Nesmith and Charles Rabin contributed to this report.

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