The alleged ringleader of a group of South Florida men accused of plotting to blow up Chicago’s Sears Tower wanted the blast to divert law enforcement so he could free inmates from a prison to join his terrorist army, federal prosecutors said Friday.

The lead lawyer in the government’s terrorism case against the seven men provided fresh details about the group’s alleged plot to bomb buildings in Miami and Chicago – and how the plan disintegrated as members fought among themselves.

The picture that emerged during Friday’s hearing in Miami federal court was of an ambitious, but inept, military-style organization whose members had illusions of grandeur and a taste for intrigue.

The men staged a top-secret meeting in the Florida Keys, swore loyalty oaths to al-Qaida, and even put their own leader on trial for treason and insubordination, said prosecutor Jacqueline Arango. According to the original indictment that led to their arrests on June 22, the group’s ultimate goal was to launch an all-out ground war against the U.S. government by blowing up the Sears Tower.

In fact, the plan was even more far-fetched.

The group’s alleged ringleader Narseal Batiste believed that bringing down the 110-story Sears Tower would divert law enforcement, allowing him to break into a Chicago-area prison and release the inmates who would then join his army, Arango said.

However, before obtaining any explosives or weapons, the group disbanded over rising suspicions about a government witness who had infiltrated the organization by posing as an al-Qaida member. Batiste had a final meeting with that informant on May 24 and told him that he still wanted to fulfill his plan, Arango said.

“I want to fight some jihad. That’s all I live for,” Arango quoted Batiste as saying during the meeting.

At that point, the government decided to end its investigation and arrest the men, Arango said.

The government’s two-hour presentation, which included video recordings made during the investigation, came during a hearing on whether six of the seven men should remain in custody prior to their trial. Arango argued the men should not be released on bond because they pose a danger to the community and might flee.

Arango said that while Batiste was the group’s leader, each of the defendants swore oaths to al-Qaida and took steps to be part of a conspiracy to destroy the Sears Tower and the FBI building in North Miami Beach.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Ted Bandstra said he would rule after defense lawyers finish presenting evidence next week.

The six men – Batiste, 32; Patrick Abraham, 26; Stanley Grant Phanor, 31, Naudimar Herrera, 22; Burson Augustin, 21; and Rotschild Augustine, 22 – each pleaded not guilty Friday to charges that they supported al-Qaida, plotted to destroy buildings using explosives, and conspired to levy war against the government. The seventh man, Lyglenson Lemorin, 31, is currently in custody in Atlanta.

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During the proceeding, defense lawyers for the six sat at a table listening and taking notes. But only John Wylie, who represents Batiste, had a chance to question the government’s witness before the hearing ended.

“Do you have any evidence that Mr. Batiste has met with any terrorist organizations from the Middle East?” Wylie asked.

“No, I do not,” FBI Special Agent Tony Velasquez responded.

“Other than the person posing as al-Qaida, is there any evidence of contact with anyone from al-Qaida?” Wylie asked.

“No,” Velasquez responded.

In the video clips shown in court, the government obscured the face of the undercover witness pretending to be an al-Qaida agent.

According to Arango, the witness was introduced to Batiste by an acquaintance, who also cooperated with the FBI.

Bandstra would not permit Velasquez to answer questions about whether the government provided money or other benefits to the two cooperating witnesses, who are not law enforcement agents.

During several meetings, Batiste spoke to the government witness, who he believed to be an al-Qaida representative, about his desire to bomb the Sears Tower and gave the witness a list of the supplies he would need to carry out his plans, Arango said.

Among the items: $50,000, military uniforms, boots, guns, bulletproof vests, and sports utility vehicles.

But in January, the investigation hit a snag when Batiste went into hiding, telling a friend he was suspicious of the government’s undercover witness.

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On Jan. 28, the witness was summoned to the warehouse with the acquaintance who had first introduced him to the group. When they arrived, Abraham told the men to take off their clothes, remove their jewelry, and hand over their cell phones, Arango said. They were examined for recording devices, given new clothes and driven to Islamorada in the Florida Keys. Batiste was waiting for the men under a bridge.

The incident, which Arango called a kidnapping, solidified Batiste’s relationship with the undercover witness. Batiste said that he could now trust the witness and wanted to continue their work together, she said.

In March, the seven men pledged oaths of loyalty, or bayat, to al-Qaida and some group members conducted surveillance of potential targets in Miami, including the FBI building, the federal courthouse, and the federal prison, prosecutors say.

As their plans gained momentum, the undercover witness gave Batiste $3,500 to fly in an associate from Chicago.

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Sultan Khanbey, 51, Batiste’s friend and a member of the National Moorish Temple, quickly grew suspicious of the government witness and told Batiste he was being set up by the FBI, Arango said.

On April 17, Khanbey put Batiste on trial for treason and insubordination inside the group’s Liberty City headquarters.

Some members of the group sided with Batiste and some sided with Khanbey, causing a rift in the organization, Arango said.

Khanbey was subsequently arrested on weapons charges and could be called as a witness against Batiste.

Prosecutors have said the men led by Batiste belonged to the Moorish Science Temple, headquartered in a Liberty City warehouse. Leaders of the Moorish Science Temple of America have denied that the men were members.



(c) 2006 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Visit the Sun-Sentinel on the World Wide Web at http://www.sun-sentinel.com/

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TERROR ARRESTS

AP-NY-06-30-06 2140EDT


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