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Seven Charged in al-Qaida Plot to Blow up the Sears Tower

June 23, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: The men indicted in Miami today were described by federal authorities as homegrown terrorists, as members of an Islamic army planning to destroy five government buildings in four U.S. cities, and the Sears Tower in Chicago, as well.

ALBERTO GONZALES, U.S. Attorney General: What we have is a situation where individuals here in America made plans to hurt Americans.

They did take some overt acts; they did request materials; they did request equipment; they did request funding; they took an allegiance — swore allegiance to al-Qaida.

We clearly believe there’s sufficient information, sufficient facts, to support this prosecution. And, therefore, we took action when we did because we believe we have an obligation to prevent America from another attack here.

RAY SUAREZ: The seven indicted include five U.S. citizens and two Haitian immigrants, one here illegally, and range in age from 22 to 32.

ALBERTO GONZALES: The indictment charges four counts: conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, namely al-Qaida; conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists; conspiracy to maliciously damage and destroy buildings by means of an explosive device; and conspiracy to levy war against the government of the United States.

Seven arrested Thursday

RAY SUAREZ: All seven were taken into custody yesterday, when authorities swarmed a warehouse in Miami's Liberty City neighborhood, a predominantly poor, African-American section north of downtown.

LIBERTY CITY RESIDENT: They used a blowtorch. And that wouldn't work, and then they cut the door open. Then they gained entry then, when they gained entry -- I didn't know anyone was in there.

RAY SUAREZ: Liberty City residents said the men regularly were seen outside the warehouse but that they kept to themselves.

LIBERTY CITY RESIDENT: All you could do was just see their eyes. They had the whole head wrapped up with, just their eyes showing. And, like, they standing guard, one here, one there, like soldiers, you know? Very quiet.

LIBERTY CITY RESIDENT: They talked to nobody. They would nod their head, they say. Some of the people said they speak to them, and they just nod their head or something, or they just keep their heads straight. They was acting like they was in military training.

RAY SUAREZ: According to the federal indictment, the seven men sought assistance from someone they believed was a member of al-Qaida.

ALBERTO GONZALES: In actuality, he was working with the South Florida Joint Terrorism Task Force.

RAY SUAREZ: The government says the alleged ringleader of the group, Narseal Batiste, asked that informant during several meetings last year to provide him with boots, uniforms, machine guns, radios, vehicles, and $50,000 in cash to help him wage war against the United States, including an explosives attack on America's tallest building, the Sears Tower in Chicago.

Authorities there sought to reassure the public today.

CHICAGO SPOKESMAN: There never was any credible threat to the Sears Tower at all.

RAY SUAREZ: But some Chicagoans still voiced concern.

CHICAGO RESIDENT: I'm scared, because I work kitty-corner from the Sears Tower, and I was working -- on September 11th, I was just leaving work when that all happened, and I started feeling like things were OK. Now, I'm scared again.

RAY SUAREZ: Throughout the day, federal authorities were peppered with questions about how the operation was executed and why they decided to act when they did.

ALBERTO GONZALES: Our philosophy here is that we try to identify plots in the earliest stages possible because we don't know what we don't know about a terrorism plot, and that, once we have sufficient information to move forward with a prosecution, that's what we do. And that is what has occurred here.

RAY SUAREZ: In Miami, U.S. attorney Alex Acosta elaborated on the procedures.

ALEX ACOSTA, U.S. Attorney for Southern Florida: Certainly, one question is: Do we have sufficient evidence to bring an indictment and to then obtain a conviction in court?

Another question is: Have we carefully investigated the cell to ensure that we have identified all individuals who may pose a threat to our community or to our nation?

And sometimes that's a very difficult balance, because you want to go and disrupt cells like this before they acquire the capability to execute on a plan.

Uncovering the plot

Mark Hosenball
They [the suspects] were getting angrier and angrier and more intent on plotting to attack something, and they allegedly reached out to an outsider who they thought would be able to supply them with materials, maybe put them in touch with al-Qaida.

RAY SUAREZ: The seven charged are expected back in a Miami court one week from today.

And joining us now is Mark Hosenball, investigative correspondent for Newsweek magazine and co-author of its "Terror Watch" column. And Kendall Coffey, he was U.S. attorney in Miami during the Clinton administration and served on the American Bar Association's Task Force on Domestic Terrorism. He's now in private practice.

Mark Hosenball, how did this group first come to the FBI's attention?

MARK HOSENBALL, Newsweek: As I understand it, they were getting angrier and angrier and more intent on plotting to attack something, and they allegedly reached out to an outsider who they thought would be able to supply them with materials, maybe put them in touch with al-Qaida.

This outsider, or maybe more than one outsider who has not been identified to me, then in turn put them -- got in touch with the authorities, with the FBI, through a terrorism task force, who in turn introduced the perpetrators of the accused to an undercover operative, an undercover informant, who was not a government agent, but somebody working for the government, who then penetrated the group and hung around with them, and who is described in the indictment as a, quote, "al-Qaida operative." He was a fake al-Qaida operative working for the government as an informant.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, once all these connections were made and the group was penetrated, how long did the government let it cook, watch this group?

MARK HOSENBALL: As I understand it, the indictment says that many of the events that led up to the indictment actually occurred last December or earlier. As I understand it, this may have been in the works for up to a year.

More aspirational than operational

Kendell Coffey
Former U.S. Attorney
What we're trying to accomplish is getting to the bottom of these groups before they carry out any destructive acts. The idea isn't to prosecute terrorism crimes after they've been committed, and stings are a huge tool for prevention.

RAY SUAREZ: One FBI agent reached today told a reporter that this group was more aspirational than operational. What did he mean by that?

MARK HOSENBALL: I heard the same line myself from government officials. What they meant was that these were guys who hoped to do something, were talking about doing something, but hadn't actually really started to do it.

RAY SUAREZ: So, when they are charged with these things, when it says, for instance, an al-Qaida link, is there any evidence that they actually ever spoke to an actual member, rather than a government plant, from al-Qaida?

MARK HOSENBALL: No. In fact, the evidence, as I understand it, demonstrates clearly that they did not speak to any real al-Qaida person or anybody like that outside the country or in the country, for that matter.

RAY SUAREZ: Kendall Coffey, what you can tell us about Liberty City?

KENDALL COFFEY, Former U.S. Attorney: Well, it's a tough part of town. It's got a lot of history, a lot of spirit, and a lot of goals of revitalization. But like a lot of places in Miami where people come from all kinds of different places, and it can be a society not only of diversity but of newcomers, it's pretty easy to do things and not attract a lot of attention.

RAY SUAREZ: All seven charged between 22 and 32. If you were to go to Liberty City, would it be easy to find young men who are sort of living on the margins or feel pretty alienated from mainstream society?

KENDALL COFFEY: In Liberty City and in a lot of other places. Of course, this particular group went far beyond that, taking up sort of some kind of paramilitary role and, according to the government, getting significantly involved in planning and preparation for some variety of destructive, violent and death-causing actions.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you're a former U.S. attorney. You've read the indictment. Whenever a sting operation is pulled off, these questions get asked about where the line is between enticing someone to do something or just watching them do something that they would have done on their own. Where does it fall in this case?

KENDALL COFFEY: Well, stings are essential in this kind of situation, because what we're trying to accomplish is getting to the bottom of these groups before they carry out any destructive acts. The idea isn't to prosecute terrorism crimes after they've been committed, and stings are a huge tool for prevention.

The key to the case, Jim, is going to be, I think, the strength of what are probably some audio, maybe some videotapes, because I think that this kind of a case, where there is not a lot of hard evidence that these guys had gotten very far -- they hadn't gotten to first base; they really hadn't even gotten into the baseball stadium -- what's going to be critical are the defendants' own words, as perhaps played by tapes in front of that jury.

Improved U.S. intelligence

Kendall Coffey
Former U.S. Attorney
What this case is based upon is not completed actions, but conspiratorial conduct, planning preparation, fairly limited overt acts that nevertheless go far enough so that a case can be prosecuted and arrested based on the talking stage.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it necessary to demonstrate that they weren't incited to make these declarations, for instance, to kill all devils, as was mentioned being in evidence?

KENDALL COFFEY: Well, in any tape you hear, usually the informant is doing some things to prop some of the comments, but I doubt anyone made any of those defendants talk about killing all the devils they can, doing worse atrocities than 9/11.

And so, in any kind of an operation like this, there's no doubt that the government is going to take steps to draw out the motives and the actions. But there is enough in that indictment to make it clear that this wasn't an isolated, loose-talk conversation over drinks.

This was transaction after transactions, a series of discussions, meetings, and a very clear evidence that these individuals, whether or not they had the capacity to blow up buildings, were all about trying to create some kind of military force in order to kill people and inflict as much havoc as possible.

RAY SUAREZ: Is that how you read the indictment, Mark Hosenball?

MARK HOSENBALL: Well, that's certainly what the government is saying. Again, you know, whether these people are more or less pathetic, I think we'll learn, again.

And we will also learn when the tapes, assuming that they exist -- and I'm pretty sure that Mr. Coffey is right and that they do exist -- when the tapes are actually played in court, and then we'll see what the role of the informant is and we'll see what the role of these individuals are, in sort of dividing up between them, you know, who's going to do what, and who suggested to whom what to do.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, there have been several cells busted by domestic law enforcement in the years since the September 11th attacks: one in the Pacific Northwest; one in western New York State; another in Illinois. What are some of the similarities and differences with this Miami seven?

MARK HOSENBALL: Well, I mean, in the case of some of these other cells, it was clear that the people were Islamic. For example, in Buffalo, where I actually covered that case, these people had actually been to Pakistan. I think some of them had even been to Osama bin Laden's training camps.

In this case, there is no evidence of that. Also, in this case it's not even clear that these people are really Islamists or Islamic. It's not even clear they're even Muslims. They may be adherents, from what I understand, to some sort of kind of very Native American group, where the African-Americans believe that they're descended from Moors.

So, you know, this is kind of eccentric. It's not mainstream Islam in any way.

But, on the other hand, these people do seem to have talked about more ambitious targets than some of these other terrorist suspects, who, indeed, in most cases, in some cases they were actually set up like these people were, by informants, but in most cases they were convicted, some of these other people who were the subjects of FBI investigations.

So the government does sort of know what it's doing with these cases.

RAY SUAREZ: Kendall Coffey, during the years since 9/11, has the federal government re-examined what constitutes a plot and what constitutes the kind of activities that's worthy of surveillance or close watching?

KENDALL COFFEY: Well, certainly, they've taken a broad view of the kind of activities that have to be examined and they take a broad view of the law of conspiracy. What this case is based upon is not completed actions, but conspiratorial conduct, planning preparation, fairly limited overt acts that nevertheless go far enough so that a case can be prosecuted and arrested based on the talking stage, well before it gets any kind of a bomb-making stage.

RAY SUAREZ: And does that represent a refinement, a broadening, a really new approach toward prosecuting these cases?

KENDALL COFFEY: I think it clearly represents a new focus, and this is probably a very successful example of all the things that the administration has been trying to do, in the sense that this time they got somebody inside the group.

As we recall, before 9/11, there was a tremendous problem with not having intelligence assets placed within any of the terrorist organizations. They followed the thing closely enough and brought it down, made the arrests, well before any kind of dangerous circumstances occurred.

And whether or not these were wannabes or not, even if they were people that never could be, they were clearly trying to be, and that's enough for purposes of the law of conspiracy, and certainly for purposes of our terrorism laws.

RAY SUAREZ: Kendall Coffey and Mark Hosenball, gentlemen, thank you both.

KENDALL COFFEY: Thanks to you.