Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Friday that seven young men arrested in Miami were part of a group of "homegrown terrorists" who sought to work with al-Qaida but ended up consorting instead with a law enforcement informant.
Outlining an alleged plot to bomb the Sears Tower in Chicago and a federal building in Miami, Gonzales told a Justice Department news conference: "They were persons who for whatever reason came to view their home country as the enemy."
The seven individuals - ranging in age from 22 to 32 - were indicted by a federal grand jury in Miami and taken into custody Thursday when authorities swarmed a warehouse in the Liberty City area, removing a metal door with a blow torch.
The alleged terrorists - five U.S. citizens, a legal immigrant from Haiti and a Haitian national who was in this country illegally - were expected to appear in federal court in Miami later Friday. They had taken an oath to al-Qaida and sought help from someone they believed was a member of the terrorist organization, the indictment alleged.
Said Gonzales: "The convergence of globalization and technology has created a new brand of terrorism. Today terrorist threats come from smaller more loosely defined cells not affiliated with al-Qaida but who are inspired by a violent jihadist message, and left unchecked these homegrown terrorists may prove to be as dangerous as groups like al-Qaida."
Gonzales outlined the contents of an indictment handed up Thursday, which identified Narseal Batiste as having recruited and trained others beginning in November 2005 "for a mission to wage war against the United States government," including a plot to destroy the Sears Tower.
To obtain money and support for their mission, the conspirators sought help from al-Qaida, pledged an oath to the terrorist organization and supported an al-Qaida plot to destroy FBI buildings, the four-count indictment charged.
Batiste met several times in December 2005 with a person purporting to be an al-Qaida member and asked for boots, uniforms, machine guns, radios, vehicles and $50,000 in cash to help him build an "'Islamic Army' to wage jihad'," the indictment said. It said that Batiste said he would use his "soldiers" to destroy the Sears Tower.
Gonzales said "the individual they thought was a member of al-Qaida was present at their meetings and in actuality he was working with the South Florida Joint Terrorism Task Force."
In February 2006, it said, Batiste told the "al-Qaida representative" that he and his five soldiers wanted to attend al-Qaida training and planned a "full ground war" against the United States in order to "kill all the devils we can." His mission would "be just as good or greater than 9/11," the indictment accused Batiste of boasting.
The seven defendants were charged with conspiring to "maliciously damage and destroy by means of an explosive" the FBI building in North Miami Beach and the Sears Tower in Chicago.
They were are also charged with conspiring "to levy war against the government of the United States, and to oppose by force the authority thereof."
Residents living near the warehouse said the men taken into custody described themselves as Muslims and had tried to recruit young people to join their group. Tashawn Rose, 29, said they tried to recruit her younger brother and nephew for a karate class.
She said she talked to one of the men about a month ago. "They seemed brainwashed," she said. "They said they had given their lives to Allah."
Residents said FBI agents spent several hours in the neighborhood showing photos of the suspects and seeking information. They said the men had lived in the area for about a year.
Benjamin Williams, 17, said the group sometimes had young children with them. At times, he added, the men "would cover their faces. Sometimes they would wear things on their heads, like turbans."
Managers of the Sears Tower, the nation's tallest building, said in a statement they speak regularly with the FBI and local law enforcement about terror threats and that Thursday "was no exception."
Security at the 110-floor Sears Tower, a Chicago landmark, was ramped up after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the 103rd-floor skydeck was closed for about a month and a half.
"Law enforcement continues to tell us that they have never found evidence of a credible terrorism threat against Sears Tower that has gone beyond criminal discussions," the statement said.
In Chicago early Friday, people headed to work in the Sears Tower knew about the potential threat but didn't plan to change their routines.
In addition to Batiste and Augustin the defendants were identified as Patrick Abraham, or "Brother Pat"; Stanley Grant Phanor, or "Brother Sunni"; Naudimar Herrera or "Brother Naudy"; Lyglenson Lemorin, also known as "Brother Levi" or Brother Levi-El"; and Rotschild Augustine, or "Brother Rot."
The indictment described the alleged scheme this way:
Joseph Phanor, the father of defendant Stanley Grant Phanor, said he didn't believe "anything they say about" his son being involved in a terrorist plot.
"This boy, he's not a violent boy. He never got into trouble. ... He didn't want to kill people," the elder Phanor told The Associated Press.
He said his son and his friends studied the Bible together in Miami. "All I know is that they have a construction job there and they have a contract to do some construction job. That's what he told me," he said.
The person they believed to be an al-Qaida representative gave Batiste a digital video camera, which Batiste said he would use to record pictures of the North Miami Beach FBI building, the indictment said. At a March 26 meeting, it went on, Batiste and Burson Augustin provided the "al-Qaida representative" with photographs of the FBI building, as well as video footage of other Miami government buildings, and discussed the plot to bomb the FBI building.
But on May 24, the indictment said, Batiste told the "al-Qaida representative" that he was experiencing delays "because of various problems within his organization." Batiste said he wanted to continue his mission and his relationship with al-Qaida nonetheless, the document said.
Associated Press writers Kelli Kennedy and John Pain in Miami and Connie Cass in Washington contributed to this report.