Trial Nears in Sears Tower Terror Case

MIAMI - To hear prosecutors tell it, Narseal Batiste and six followers formed a budding homegrown terrorist cell determined to rival the Sept. 11 attacks by toppling the Sears Tower in Chicago.

In the same court building where Jose Padilla was convicted last month, trial begins this week for seven men who federal prosecutors say envisioned a "full ground war" that would eventually replace the U.S. government with an Islamic regime.

"I want to fight some jihad," Batiste said in a 2006 conversation taped by the FBI. "That's all I live for."

Defense lawyers and supporters of the so-called "Liberty City Seven" say the men never sought to hurt anyone and amassed only one gun and a few knives and machetes. They say the alleged terror conspiracy was driven by a pair of paid FBI informants - one claiming to be an al-Qaida emissary.

"These guys never left the United States. They never traveled to the Middle East," said Albert Levin, attorney for defendant Patrick Abraham. "They never had any way of carrying out what was discussed. This was pure words."

Batiste, the leader of an obscure religious sect, and the others from Miami's blighted Liberty City neighborhood each face decades in prison if convicted. The four-count indictment includes charges of conspiracy to levy war against the United States and conspiracy to provide material support to al-Qaida.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Tuesday and take one to two weeks. The main prosecution case is expected to last at least six weeks.

The trial will be held before U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard, one floor above the courtroom where a jury in August convicted Padilla, the former enemy combatant, and two other men on murder conspiracy and terror support charges.

The trial promises to test anew the Bush administration's post-Sept. 11 strategy of disrupting potential terrorists in the earliest possible stages. When it comes to terror cases, federal officials say, arrests can't wait until the proverbial fuse is lit.

"People who never would have been prosecuted prior to 9/11 are now prosecuted," said Matthew Orwig, former U.S. attorney in Texas who served on a Justice Department terrorism and national security panel. "Nobody wants to allow any terror case to go unaddressed. Even if the chances of their carrying anything out is minuscule, the consequences could be enormous."

Like the Padilla trial, the Liberty City case will feature dozens of FBI telephone intercepts as well as video of Batiste and the others discussing the alleged plot to destroy the 110-story Sears Tower, America's tallest building.

The strongest evidence are FBI videotapes showing all seven men pledging allegiance to al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden. But defense lawyers claim at least some group members had no idea what they were doing and were persuaded to take the oath by Batiste and the FBI informant.

The bulk of the evidence focuses on Batiste, with at least two members of the group having only minimal involvement. Yet defense attorneys and prosecutors were unable to reach any plea agreements in exchange for reduced sentences for any of the seven.

Batiste's lawyer, Ana M. Jhones, did not respond to e-mail and telephone requests for comment.

The FBI got wind of Batiste in October 2005, when he allegedly asked a local man if he knew anyone in Yemen who might help with a possible terror plot. Batiste, a construction worker who has Chicago ties, was leading a chapter of a sect called the Moorish Science Temple that, among other things, does not recognize the authority of the U.S. government.

What Batiste didn't know: The man he talked to was an FBI informant.

A few months later, a second FBI informant known as Mohammed met with Batiste, who allegedly discussed how he wanted to start a war to impose Islam in the United States that would be ignited by the Sears Tower's destruction. He asked if Mohammed, who was pretending to be an al-Qaida operative, could help finance the operation.

"If I can put up a building then I should definitely know how to take one down," Batiste said, according to an FBI transcript.

After his June 2006 arrest, Batiste told the FBI he was never serious and was only stringing Mohammed along in hopes of extorting money from him.

Members of the group also took reconnaissance photos in March 2006 of the FBI's office in Miami and other local federal buildings at Mohammed's request.

(AP Online -- 09/17/07)