Seven indicted in alleged plot against Sears Tower
June 24, 2006 (Last Updated: 7:23 PM) (WLS) -- Five of the seven suspects accused of plotting to blow up several buildings including the Sears Tower appeared in a Florida court Friday. Attorney general Alberto Gonzales describes the men as homegrown terrorists.
Authorities say the group planned to attack several buildings across the country, including the Sears Tower in Chicago and the FBI headquarters in Miami.
Investigators say the mastermind behind these attacks is a man named Narseal Batiste. Batiste, a father of four, was arrested in 1993 in Chicago on a misdemeanor charge of criminal damage to property.
Narseal Batiste and his six alleged confederates are, prosecutors say, homegrown terrorists who pledged allegiance to al-Qaida. When they swore their oath, however, they did it before a man who was in reality a government informant. He then enabled the FBI to build a case that the seven men planned to blow up the Sears Tower and five government buildings in Miami. But throughout the day Friday, lawmen have repeated over and over that this group talked of war but posed no immediate threat of causing harm.
Batiste told the informant that he thought was a member of al-Qaida and that he wanted to blow up the Sears Tower, recruit an Islamic army to wage a holy war against the US, and, in the process, "kill all the devils we can."
"The plan developed in Florida was never actionable and therefore, no one was ever in danger," said Andrew Velasquez, OEMC director.
Chicago city officials Friday said that police were aware of the investigation, and that at no time did any of the seven men in search of a Jihad ever pose any real threat to the Sears Tower.
"We have been in close communication with the FBI from the beginning of this investigation. And we also work very closely with Sears Tower security, communicate with them routinely, as needed, should any security concerns arise," said Supt. Phil Cline, Chicago Police.
"Federal and local authorities continue to tell us they have never found evidence of a credible terrorism threat against Sears Tower that's ever gone beyond just talk," said Barbara Carley, Sears Tower managing director.
The indictment details at least a dozen meetings between Batiste, other members of his group and the government informant in which Batiste asks for things like binoculars, bullet proof bests, firearms, vehicles, and $50,000 in cash. They also asked for al Qaeda training.
Batiste's last known address in Chicago is now a burned out second floor Back of the Yards apartment. When he filed for bankruptcy in Chicago in May of 2001 he said at the time he was a FedEx driver. More recently in Florida, Batiste, during the terror plotting, was arrested for aggravated battery.
In multiple news conferences Friday, lawmen sought to underscore that the men who talked about blowing up the Sears Tower talked, but had no means to carryout their threat.
"There was never a real threat against the people of the city of Chicago. And I want to reassure the people of the city of Chicago are as safe as ever," said Mayor Richard Daley.
The mayor Friday was in La Jolla, California, making another presentation on Chicago's bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.
A group of Illinois congressmen and senators are calling on the Bush administration to quickly implement security measures for Chicago that were recommended by the 9/11 Commission.
Senator Barack Obama is one of the lawmakers requesting a meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Obama also issued a statement Friday saying this latest plot is a "stark reminder that landmarks in our nation's great cities, like the Sears Tower in Chicago, remain tempting targets for terrorists and would-be terrorists."
Obama also said we need to make sure our Homeland Security dollars are distributed according to risk.
Illinois' governor says the state's security is good but the arrests of a group of men accused of conspiring to blow up the Sears Tower and a federal building in Miami shows that residents should remain vigilant. Blagojevich urges Illinoisans to go about their business and live their lives. But he says they should keep an eye out for suspicious activity and report it to police.
While security at the Sears Tower was significantly increased after the 9/11 attacks, building management says there are no plans to heighten the security level any further. Those who work in the Sears Tower and tourists alike say they do not feel intimidated by this latest threat.
"We have a great evacuation plan. We have signs posted everywhere, and we do drills. So everything is fine. I think we'll be OK," said Odell Thomas, Sears Tower employee- 78th floor.
While some of those who work in the Sears Tower remain unconcerned about escaping in the event of a terrorist attack, others who work close to the building are not so comfortable.
"It can be kind of scary, but it's something you have to do. You have to work through it," said Karen DeRoos, Loop worker.
Visitors looked out in awe at the view from the Sears Tower sky deck Friday night. It was one of those clear evenings when you can see for miles. They were there despite word of the alleged plot to blow the building up. Few were worried.
"We thought we would be the safest today because there's probably extra security," said Susan Norris, tourist.
The Sears Tower does have some of the most sophisticated security in the country, from the barriers surrounding the outside of the building to the cameras that seem to be everywhere, security is obviously a high priority.
Management says the tower is 80 percent occupied right now and has been on the verge of recovering from the financial damage caused by fears from September 11th. Then came this latest word of a plot against the building.
"It reinforces in everyone's mind the connection between the Sears Tower and terrorism," said Thomas Corfman, Crain's Chicago Business.
Five of the men arrested in Miami are US citizens. One is a legal immigrant from Haiti and the seventh is a Haitian national who is here illegally. They are all charged with conspiring to "levy war against the government of the United States."
At a news conference in Miami, U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said officials decided to raid the warehouse and make the arrests on Thursday because investigators had sufficient evidence and were confident they had fully developed the case. Acosta said authorities are confident that each arrested member of the cell "had intent to pose a threat."
"You want to go and disrupt cells like this before they acquire the means to accomplish their goals," Acosta said. "This is exactly the kind of case we should be investigating."
Acosta said the group came to law enforcement's attention when the alleged ringleader, Batiste, approached an individual about waging jihad inside the United States. This unidentified individual went to authorities with that information and later posed as an al-Qaida member, Acosta said.
He would not more fully describe the individual other than to say it was a person "who was working with us."
Residents living near the warehouse said the men taken into custody described themselves as Muslims and had tried to recruit young people to join their group. Tashawn Rose, 29, said they tried to recruit her younger brother and nephew for a karate class.
She said she talked to one of the men about a month ago. "They seemed brainwashed," she said. "They said they had given their lives to Allah."
Residents said FBI agents spent several hours in Miami's Liberty City neighborhood showing photos of the suspects and seeking information. They said the men had lived in the area for about a year.
Benjamin Williams, 17, said the group sometimes had young children with them. At times, he added, the men "would cover their faces. Sometimes they would wear things on their heads, like turbans."
Joseph Phanor, the father of defendant Stanley Grant Phanor, said he didn't believe "anything they say about" his son being involved in a terrorist plot.
"This boy, he's not a violent boy. He never got into trouble. ... He didn't want to kill people," the elder Phanor told The Associated Press.
He said his son and his friends studied the Bible together in Miami. "All I know is that they have a construction job there and they have a contract to do some construction job. That's what he told me," he said.
The person they believed to be an al-Qaida representative gave Batiste a digital video camera, which Batiste said he would use to record pictures of the North Miami Beach FBI building, the indictment said. At a March 26 meeting, it went on, Batiste and Burson Augustin provided the "al-Qaida representative" with photographs of the FBI building, as well as video footage of other Miami government buildings, and discussed the plot to bomb the FBI building.
But on May 24, the indictment said, Batiste told the "al-Qaida representative" that he was experiencing delays "because of various problems within his organization." Batiste said he wanted to continue his mission and his relationship with al-Qaida nonetheless, the document said.
Leaders of Chicago's Muslim community are praising law enforcement for breaking up this alleged plot. The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago says this group of alleged terrorists doesn't represent the values of the Muslim community.
"If these people are responsible for committing any act of terrorism and they have broken any laws, they need to be punished to the full extent of the law," said Abdul Malik Mujahid, Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago.
The director of the Chicago chapter of American Islamic Relations calls the alleged conspirators "a bizarre cultist group."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.)
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