A Major Terror Plot Interrupted — or a ‘Setup’?
In 2006, in what was touted by the government as a major success in the post-9/11 “war on terror,” then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales took to the podium at a press conference to announce the arrest of an alleged seven-man homegrown terror cell that had pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda.
The group of Black men from the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami had been arrested “on charges of conspiring to support the Al Qaeda terrorist organization by planning attacks on numerous targets, including bombing the Sears Tower in Chicago,” Gonzales said. He quoted the men as saying they wished to carry out a “‘full ground war’” against the U.S., to “‘kill all the devils we can,’” and to make their attacks “‘just as good or greater than 9/11.’”
But the Liberty City Seven had no weapons and had never communicated with anyone from Al Qaeda. Lawyers for the men insist the plot was an FBI setup. The alleged “ringleader,” Narseal Batiste, said he only said what he did because he was desperate for cash, and he had no intention of following through.
“I wanted to stand up and shout and say that: ‘I’m not this person. I’m really a good person on the inside. I would never do those things. It was just a con game,’” Batiste says in In the Shadow of 9/11, a new FRONTLINE documentary from acclaimed director Dan Reed (Leaving Neverland).
Even some within the Department of Justice had reservations, the film reports.
“This is a cautionary tale. … be careful as to how far your undercover agents or your informants push,” Michael Mullaney, chief of the Counterterrorism Section of the Department of Justice from 2006 through 2019, says in the documentary. “The goal is not to take somebody that is not a terrorist and make them a terrorist.”
Premiering on PBS and online Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, In the Shadow of 9/11 sheds fresh light on the case of the Liberty City Seven, a little-known chapter in the government’s attempts to counter acts of terror following Sept. 11, 2001, the deadliest terror attack on the U.S. in the country’s history. The feature-length film explores the FBI’s shift to focusing on counterterrorism in the wake of 9/11 — including working with undercover informants to gain information about potential domestic threats — in an effort to prevent another tragedy on U.S. soil.
“Some of the things that fell through the gap allowed 9/11 to happen,” says Anthony Velazquez, former acting supervisory special agent with the FBI in Miami. “We could not allow for anything like that to fall through a gap again.”
So when the Miami FBI received a tip from an informant about a group of men in Liberty City who had formed a temple and were allegedly holding military drills and expressing interest in overthrowing the U.S. government, the agency took action. The documentary on the Liberty City Seven case explores the FBI’s tactics and the men’s story, including whether they posed a legitimate threat to national security. The above excerpt spotlights the government’s announcement of the arrests and the almost-immediate questions that arose from reporters.
“Ultimately we realized it was a sting operation,” says Jay Weaver, a federal courts reporter for the Miami Herald. “The way this all unfolded seemed very improbable. Very forced. And it really looked like the FBI had led these men down the primrose path.”
As the documentary reports, the two informants the FBI used in the Liberty City Seven case — one of whom pretended to have an Al Qaeda connection, while the other pretended to be an Al Qaeda member — were the men’s only connections to the terror group. Batiste would later say he was trying to scam money, but the situation quickly unraveled into him doing and saying increasingly bizarre and dangerous things, including pledging allegiance to Al Qaeda, discussing plots for domestic terror attacks and saying, “millions of people will probably die” — all of it secretly recorded by the FBI.
The documentary investigates the extent to which the FBI’s own actions fueled the case, which would ultimately see five of the seven men, including Batiste, convicted in a third trial following two mistrials.
“They didn’t have the manner and means, they had no money, they barely had vehicles. … and they certainly didn’t have bombs,” says attorney Albert Levin, who represented one of the seven men in court. “It was just a complete, you know, setup by the government. The plot was being moved forward by the informants and the FBI.”
Others disagree. “They did what they were convicted of,” says Velazquez, who notes in the film that Batiste had many opportunities to back away from the informants.
“A conversation is an act. So, you don’t need to pick up a gun or let off a bomb or make a bomb for it to be an overt act,” former federal prosecutor Jackie Arango says in the film.
John Pistole, deputy director of the FBI from 2004 to 2010, who spoke along with Gonzales at the press conference announcing the indictment of the seven men, says in the above excerpt that he took pains not to overstate the nature of the case.
“I wanted to distinguish this for the media, ’cause one of my concerns was that we not overhype things, that, you know, this is another 9/11 cell, that they’re ready, willing and able to die and had the means of accomplishing their attacks,” Pistole says in the above excerpt. “And so, I described it as … this was an aspirational group rather than operational group.”
Gonzales defends the government’s handling of the Liberty City Seven case.
“Listen, we’re gonna go after people that engage in any kind of conduct that’s similar to this,” he says in the clip. “I think that’s a very powerful message, a very powerful tool, that the attorney general is using the stick of the Department of Justice to try to discourage this kind of behavior from happening again.”
Mullaney, the former DOJ counterterrorism chief, says the charges were valid and sting operations are necessary tools to stop terrorists. But he also says what he sees as the overhyping of the Liberty City Seven case may have had unintended consequences.
“The problem with terrorism cases is you have to stop the act. And so, you really, in a way, have to predict who’s going to do what,” he says in the excerpt. “And so, stings are very important, but if you overstate what you have done in a sting, then people begin to lose confidence in what you’re doing. They think that you’re just out there creating a terrorist yourself.”
For the full story, watch In the Shadow of 9/11 when it premieres Tuesday, Aug. 10 at 9/8c on PBS stations (check local listings), or stream it on FRONTLINE’s website, YouTube and the PBS Video App. The documentary is an AMOS Pictures Production in association with GBH/FRONTLINE for Channel 4 and was filmed, produced and directed by Dan Reed.