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The Case of the Liberty City Seven

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ARCHIVE / NARSEAL “NAZ” BATISTE:

Thirteen years ago, my face was all over the news media. The FBI told me I was on Larry King Live the day I was arrested.

ARCHIVE / ALBERTO GONZALES:

Batiste intended to recruit and supervise individuals to organize and train for a mission of war against the United States.

ARCHIVE / NEWSREEL:

Federal authorities described the group as radical black Muslims.

ARCHIVE / JOHN PISTOLE:

Their goal was simple: to commit attacks against America.

RANEY ARONSON:

In 2006, a group of seven men from Miami were indicted for the biggest alleged Al Qaeda plot since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Their trial marked the U.S. government's first major post-9/11 domestic counterterrorism sting, but the men had no money, no weapons and no connection to al Qaeda.

ARCHIVE / ANTHONY VELAZQUEZ:

OK, well, you're gonna have to put somebody that's gonna pretend to be Al Qaeda in front of them.

ARCHIVE / ELIE ASSAAD:

My name is Elie Assaad, former undercover operative for United States government.

ARONSON:

In this episode, FRONTLINE filmmaker Dan Reed discusses his new documentary In the Shadow of 9/11. In his film, he examines the domestic terrorism case of the Liberty City Seven. I'm Raney Aronson-Rath, and this is The FRONTLINE Dispatch.

FUNDER BREAK:

The FRONTLINE Dispatch is made possible by the Abrams Foundation, committed to excellence in journalism, and by the WGBH Catalyst Fund.

ARONSON:

Dan, thanks for joining me on The Dispatch.

REED:

You're most welcome. And it's a pleasure to be here.

ARONSON:

When we first spoke, one of the most profound things you told me right away is that you had taken five years to make this film. So, I really want to just know, why this story?

REED:

Well, at least five years. Yeah, it's a story that struck me as kind of being like the flip side of the films I'd done, which were about the war on terror outside the United States and outside Europe.

You know, I made a few documentaries about high-profile terrorist attacks, like trying to analyze and put together exactly how they happened. And this was a story from the homeland. And this was about how America was trying to keep itself safe, after 9/11. And it turned out that the techniques it was using were rather strange.

ARONSON:

Right, I mean, but to spend that many years on a story. I'm just curious, what told you that this was the story that you had to tell, as a documentarian?

REED:

I think a couple of things. You know, it was a real challenge, because it's such a complex story, the story that I was struggling to put together. And it had this group of guys in the center of it, who I immediately felt an affinity for, I immediately felt that their story was never going to be told by anyone, because it was so damn complicated. And I was, you know, maybe delusional here. But I did imagine that I was probably the only person who would try and tell the story on screen.

ARONSON:

Right.

REED:

And so, yeah, there was an emotional investment. And then there was also just an investment in trying to solve the puzzle of what actually happened in this case. How come these seven non-Muslim guys from, you know, the inner city of Miami, very poor neighborhood, who were construction workers, how come they became the defendants in these three incredibly high-profile trials? And how come they were accused of trying to mount the biggest plot since 9/11? It didn't make any sense. And I wanted to try and make it make sense.

ARONSON:

So, when you're looking at this story of, let's go back to this era, after 9/11, America is engulfed by fear, and the FBI, of course, is tasked to make America safe. The FBI pivots almost, you know, immediately to becoming a counterterrorism and domestic intelligence agency. But the question is, were they prepared in the first place?

REED:

Well, the FBI wasn't prepared. I think there was a sense that stuff had dropped through the cracks before 9/11. The FBI, as I understand it, wasn't even really a computerized agency. And this sounds like an extraordinary thing to say, but I had it confirmed at the highest levels: Their information processing infrastructure was not very good.

And most importantly, the FBI just didn't have the connections and the contacts and the informants that they needed in this new war on terror. So, they had stuff that they would — techniques and contacts that they had for the war on drugs, and the war on organized crime, and they just tried to adapt these to the war on terror. But instead of, you know, pursuing people who had committed a crime, they were now looking for people who might possibly be about to commit a crime.

You know, I think a likely terrorist or, you know, as the deputy director of the FBI put it, a group that was aspirational rather than operational. These were guys who, in the climate of fear after 9/11, seemed, I think, like perhaps justifiable targets, because anyone who harbored any kind of intention — however incoherent and however deeply buried — anyone who talks like a terrorist became a potential target for an investigation.

And you know, you can understand — you see that the footage — there’s been a bunch of 9/11 documentaries. I mean, it's been 20 years. But if you look back at that footage, you know that the second plane, just flying close overhead and just smashing into the second tower, and you can just feel that panic rise, you can feel that emotional terror. And I think we have to remind ourselves that that was the climate of fear, you know, even four, five years after 9/11, which is when my story happens. You know, people were just paralyzed by terror.

ARONSON:

Talk to us about the film itself.

REED:

It is an unfolding story. And it's based on this small group of men, one of whom you see in the opening titles coming out of prison. He's the last guy to be released, Narseal Batiste, alleged ringleader.

ARCHIVE / GONZALES:

Batiste intended to recruit and supervise individuals to organize and train for a mission of war against the United States.

ARCHIVE / NEWSREEL:

Six to eight people are now in federal custody after allegedly plotting to attack well-known U.S. cities.

ARCHIVE / NEWSREEL:

The federal government is calling this bust a major victory on the domestic front in this shadowy war.

REED:

And it really enforced the story of how these young men met, and how they sort of set up this little group that became both a construction company and a sort of little religious cult, and then how they bumped into this informant who was a corner store — a 19-year-old corner store guy who they bought sodas from every couple of these days, and how that informant’s tip-off to the FBI embroiled these young men in an eight-month surveillance operation. And that culminated in these three federal trials.

ARCHIVE / BATISTE:

Abbas has a friend of his that he wants me to meet who was a financial guy — a rich guy; this, that and the other — and that he would help back us at whenever we needed. But we need to follow his direction in this.

REED:

And so, it's a crazy, crazy story. If you think about it, these seven non-Muslims from Miami, who think that they are scamming this Arab guy, who poses as a terrorist financier —

ARCHIVE / BATISTE:

I thought Abbas was an avenue to relinquish my financial difficulty. If I can just get the money, I can pay these immediate bills. That was the only thing that kept driving me: that if I get that one handful of money, then it’s over with.

ARCHIVE / NEWSREEL:

An FBI informant promised them $50,000 if they pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda.

REED:

They think they're scamming him for $50,000. And in fact, the deception is going the other way. And the Middle Eastern guy is, in fact, an FBI informant.

ARONSON:

Right, and that informant gave an interview to Al Jazeera in 2014.

ARCHIVE / ASSAAD:

My name is Elie Assaad. … I never lost a case … when they have already … feel they're going to lose it, and they bring me to jump in and put it back on track.

REED:

And it's the absurd story of how these two attempted acts of deception kind of unfold and result in the most high-profile terror arrest since 9/11.

ARONSON:

We'll be right back.

To go deeper with The FRONTLINE Dispatch, subscribe to our email. To learn more about each episode, including images and links to articles that you can't get in the podcast, sign up at FRONTLINE.org/dispatch.

ARONSON:

You know, Dan, talk to me about how you told the story through the lens of the men who experienced it, I mean, and all the years that you covered it.

REED:

Yeah. So, it's a story that I tell really using the same, I think, very simple techniques that I've always used to tell these stories, which is telling an unfolding story in an intimate register. So, trying to tell the story as, really, quite dogmatically, only through direct participants and people with direct knowledge of the story. I think that, that telling the historical story has so much more impact when it's coming from an individual that you can relate to and that you feel close to.

ARONSON:

Right.

REED:

And so, there's the kind of intimacy, I suppose, to the interviews that I do. And I think the main thing is, I really listen. And I think for a documentary maker, listening is the main thing you need to be able to do, and you need to create an environment where the person knows that they are being listened to — and being listened to, not just with the ears, but with the soul. I don't mean to sound, you know, pious or anything, but I really open myself up to these people, whoever it might be. I try and get the human being within to speak to me and to trust me. And I think that creates a sort of particular quality of interview.

ARONSON:

You definitely felt transported into their lives in a way that's really rare and exceptional. Especially because, as you said, this is a very complex story. The Liberty City Seven, the guys themselves: Just tell me who they are.

REED:

So, there are seven guys. The ringleader, if you like, he’s from Chicago. And unlike the other six guys, he's not a streetwise guy. He's got no, as he would put it, street vibe. And he has a bit of a Messiah complex, and he sees himself as a spiritual leader, and his parents were Baptist preachers.

So, this young man, Narseal, arrives in Miami and befriends these six guys from Liberty City and Little Haiti, which are two very low-income, rough neighborhoods of Miami. And they kind of bond. He teaches them martial arts; he's out there in the park, teaching the local kids martial arts; and they kind of gravitate towards him, and he starts preaching to them. And his religious teachings are a mix of, you know, Christian and Jewish and Muslim — anything else he can lay his hands on.

ARCHIVE / BATISTE:

Well, I created my own style of religion. … My style had something like a much more of a martial arts, Egyptian type of mixture outfit. I wore a lot of velvets and Indian cotton. Sage rope. A staff in my hand or a rod. That's what I looked like: an ancient type of holy man. Looked like I stepped out of the Bible.

REED:

And so you have Narseal Batiste. And then you have Patrick Abraham, who is a young Haitian construction worker who’s got residency in the United States. Then you have Sunny Phanor, Stanley Phanor, who is also of Haitian heritage, who lives in Little Haiti, and his best friend, Levi Lemorin. And again, a Haitian, and the Augustin brothers, Haitians, too.

So, there's a big Haitian presence in the story, as you can tell, and I think being Haitian Americans, these guys were sort of slightly on the fringes of the African American community. And they really found in Narseal, and in this sort of project, they had this little community project to teach martial arts and sort of spread the religious word. They found a sense of community and a sense of belonging.

You know, unfortunately, Narseal’s side hustle, which was to con this Middle Eastern gentlemen out of $50,000 — which, you know, that that was his defense at trial, that he was just pretending to talk like a terrorist, because he was trying to con the money out of this Al Qaeda financier.

ARCHIVE / BATISTE:

I had no belief into fighting any jihad, holy war or anything that's going on in the Middle East. And even though it was against my morals and values, I felt like if I can go through it and just get the money, then all of that would be washed away.

REED:

But I pretty quickly realized Narseal’s grip. In talking to him today, his grip on reality is sometimes a little shaky. And I think you can see that in the surveillance recordings that the FBI made. You know, you hear Narseal Batiste talking about forming an alliance with Osama bin Laden and allied himself with Al Qaeda, which is utterly absurd. If you think of these impoverished construction workers from Miami who were not even Muslims forming an alliance.

ARONSON:

Right. And that didn't help them with the, this, sort of, you know, shift towards likely terrorists, you know — anything was being taken seriously. Right?

REED:

Yes. So, that the trials ended up hinging on these, what were called overt acts. The federal prosecutors decided that they needed some overt acts, they needed some — something concrete on which to hang their case.

And so it was suggested that this group of seven guys, the Liberty City Seven, as they later became known, should swear an oath of allegiance to Al Qaeda —

ARONSON:

Wow.

REED: — and Osama bin Laden. And because the place where they hang out, basically, in Liberty City was so difficult to surveil, because there was such a lot of drug-dealing activity and other types of activity in the area, the FBI actually persuaded them to move to another warehouse in a different part of town that had then been rigged with cameras. And as soon as they moved into this new premises, they were told to swear this oath of allegiance, which was dictated to them by the FBI informant. Literally, like, “Repeat after me.”

ARCHIVE / FBI AUDIO SURVEILLANCE OF ASSAAD:

God's pledge is upon me, and so is his compact. Repeat after me.

ARCHIVE / BATISTE:

And so eventually I read it.

ARCHIVE / FBI AUDIO SURVEILLANCE OF BATISTE:

Allah's pledge is upon me.

ARCHIVE / FBI AUDIO SURVEILLANCE OF ASSAAD:

No. You have to repeat exactly. You have to repeat.

ARCHIVE / FBI AUDIO SURVEILLANCE OF BATISTE:

But I can't say, "Allah"?

ARCHIVE / FBI AUDIO SURVEILLANCE OF ASSAAD:

Yeah, but this is for English version.

ARCHIVE / FBI AUDIO SURVEILLANCE OF BATISTE:

Of course.

ARCHIVE / FBI AUDIO SURVEILLANCE OF ASSAAD:

OK.

ARCHIVE / FBI AUDIO SURVEILLANCE OF BATISTE:

God's pledge is upon me.

REED:

And so they swear this oath of allegiance, and then, you know, once they've sworn the oath of allegiance, which is — which sounds kind of like an absurd bad translation of some oath of allegiance. They are then told that Osama bin Laden is planning to blow up some FBI offices, and one of them is in Miami, and the assignment needs some video.

And so the FBI then hires these guys a truck, buys them a camera, buys them a memory card, and tells them to go out and video the FBI office in Miami, which they do, in the hope of finally getting their $50,000. So these two overt acts, which are the swearing of the oath and the video recording of, you know, in the street. They're not doing anything fancy. It's just they're just videoing from the street. These two overt acts will — are what really sank them in the trial. And eventually, after two mistrials, the third jury convicted them of material support for Al Qaeda.

ARCHIVE / BATISTE:

I felt like it was stupid. I didn't feel like it was a real Al Qaeda oath. Usually when somebody wants you to swear allegiance to a dangerous organization, it's going to be some type of dramatic thing. They ain't going to ask you to read from no piece of paper.

ARCHIVE / REED:

Were you not worried that this could all catch up with you very quickly?

ARCHIVE / BATISTE:

Of course I was worried.

ARCHIVE / REED:

And yet —

ARCHIVE / BATISTE:

Yet I thought I could still make this deal go through.

ARONSON:

You know, Dan, it sounds so unbelievable, yet it happened to real people. And that was the crux of your film and why it's so powerful. These are real people in the middle of this, experiencing this. Share with me your thoughts about why — including how they were targeted and how it went so far? I mean, what's at play here?

REED:

I think what's at play here is, I mean, obviously, fundamentally, keeping America safe from another 9/11. That's, that's understood. That's the basic impulse driving all this. But what's at play, more specifically, is that the FBI needs to preserve a particular tool in its counterterror armory, and that particular tool — which is used a great deal and has been reused prolifically since the conviction of the Liberty City Seven — that tool is the sting operation.

ARCHIVE / MICHAEL MULLANEY:

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. 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 you’re just out there creating a terrorist yourself.

REED:

The counterterrorism chief at the Department of Justice at the time, Mike Mullaney, who speaks in the film, he says, you know: “We had to preserve the sting operation as a tool that we could use.” And if I think, if there'd been a third mistrial and the federal prosecutors had not been able to convict, then I think the legitimacy of counterterrorism sting operations would have been seriously undermined.

ARONSON:

Dan, tell me about the outcome of the trials and what happened to these men.

REED:

There are only five out of the seven, original seven defendants left; the other two have been acquitted. And one of them who doesn't go to prison is deported to Haiti, in spite of having been acquitted. And the five out of the seven Liberty City defendants are sentenced to terms from six to, I think,13 years. And all of them have now come out.

They seem remarkably lacking in bitterness. They do not still, I think, fully understand what happened to them, because I just think they were so stunned at finding themselves in that predicament. And then that, you know, the trials were long and complex, and they were not called upon to testify, which I think I consider as a mistake on the part of the defense, because I think they make very convincing witnesses.

But basically, the third trial, there was a dissenting juror, and the judge replaced the dissenting juror, which led to, you know, the full jury of 12 deciding on conviction. And then these young men go to prison for years and years.

ARCHIVE / NEWSREEL:

After the verdict was read, the one Liberty Six member who was acquitted called the prosecution of his friends "bogus.”

ARCHIVE / NEWSREEL:

You had no intention of doing any of the things you talked about?

ARCHIVE / NAUDIMAR HERRERA:

It was all a whole bunch of hogwash. … Nobody was serious about nothing. It’s not real.

REED:

The lives of these young men are ruined and, you know, their families fall apart, in many cases. And now they've all been released. And you know, they're not being treated as dangerous Al Qaeda terrorists. They're not being tailed, you know, every minute of the day by someone from a counterterrorism unit. They've just been allowed out, to just get on with their lives.

And I think that's an acknowledgement that these men were never really considered to be terrorists. And in fact, the deputy director of the FBI, when I asked him, you know, were these men terrorists, in any real sense, he says, “No, they weren't.”

ARONSON:

Dan, so you spent more than five years on this. And can you talk to us about what's next?

REED:

Well, funny, I mean, I've just finished executive producing a documentary about Jan. 6, storming the Capitol, which is a — in its own way, it's an assault on America's freedoms.

ARONSON:

Absolutely.

REED:

And that's been a fascinating, complex process. And astonishing video footage is the kind of films that I really want to make — include both deep access into a cast of core participants but also a key video material. And that's, I think, you know, with the Liberty City Seven, we got all of the FBI surveillance video and audio, which was extraordinary.

The very, very long schedule of this, of making this film, helps us, in a way, because it allowed me to, to really get to know the protagonist, but also, I waited until Narseal Batiste, the alleged ringleader, came out of jail. And that wasn't until — I wasn't able to interview him, actually, until 2019.

You know, the flip side of getting access to the defendants was getting access to former Special Agent Anthony Velazquez, who's an extraordinary storyteller. And I think we were also very lucky to find someone who, you know, was no longer serving in the FBI. So, he'd retired. And he felt that he was at liberty to tell the story now. And you know, he was — said to me: “Look, now you can ask me anything. I'm an open book.”

And he absolutely stuck to that. And there was no question I felt I couldn't answer him. And he was always very methodically and entertainingly accurate and thorough in his storytelling. And I think, you know, he really opens up the whole FBI side of the story for us and embeds you in their reality. There's a completely different reality, if you're sitting in the FBI cockpit, if you like, than if you're on the ground in Liberty City. And I think the film, you know, leverages that contrast, that clash of optics.

ARONSON:

You know, I should tell you, I'm so glad you mentioned that, because you know, when we reviewed your film in the very first place, you know, that's what actually made it a FRONTLINE. It was that level of access, also to the FBI side of the story, because then you really had the shifting lenses throughout the whole film. So, congratulations.

REED:

Thank you. And I'm so glad that FRONTLINE picked it up, because you literally could not hope for a better platform for this complex, challenging, but incredibly relevant and timely film. And it's a story that really needs to be told, because Americans, I guess, should have the right to know what techniques have been used to keep the country safe after 9/11. But it's just a very challenging story to tell. I really think that FRONTLINE is the only place on American television that I could have done this.

ARONSON:

Thank you so much. And thanks for joining me on The Dispatch.

REED:

You're most welcome, Raney.

ARONSON:

This podcast was produced by Devin Maverick Robbins. Katherine Griwert is our editorial coordinating producer. Lauren Ezell is our senior editor. Andrew Metz is our managing editor. I'm Raney Aronson-Rath, executive producer of FRONTLINE.

Music in this episode is from Stellwagen Symphonette. The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at GBH and powered by PRX.

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