WASHINGTON – United States agents managed to thwart massive-scale terror attacks targeting Chicago and Miami, which could have caused greater damage than the September 11, 2001 attacks, the FBI said Friday. The main site targeted in the plot was the United States’ tallest high-rise, the Sears Tower in Chicago, which rises to a height of 110 floors.
Six suspects were arrested in Miami after photographing additional sites there which they were planning to target. Another suspect was arrested earlier in Atlanta. All the detainees were Muslim extremists, five of them legal citizens of the United States, one was a temporary resident, and the seventh was an illegal resident from Haiti.
At a press conference held at the US Justice Ministry, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said that the suspects were “members of a local group that swore allegiance to al-Qaeda… 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
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-Qaeda."
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.
Ties to al-Qaeda
To obtain money and support for their mission, the conspirators sought help from al-Qaeda, pledged an oath to the terrorist organization and supported an al-Qaeda 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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda representative" that he and his five soldiers wanted to attend al-Qaeda 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 also charged with conspiring "to levy war against the government of the United States, and to oppose by force the authority thereof."
At a news conference in Miami, US Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said officials decided to raid the warehouse and make the arrests on Thursday because investigators had sufficient evidence and were confident they had fully developed the case. Acosta said authorities are confident that each arrested member of the cell "had intent to pose a threat."
"You want to go and disrupt cells like this before they acquire the means to accomplish their goals," Acosta said. "This is exactly the kind of case we should be investigating."
Acosta said the group came to law enforcement's attention when the alleged ringleader, Batiste, approached an individual about waging jihad inside the United States. This unidentified individual went to authorities with that information and later posed as an al-Qaeda member, Acosta said.
He would not more fully describe the individual other than to say it was a person "who was working with us."
The Associated Press contributed to the report