The seven Miami-area men accused of domestic terrorism may have been long on ambition, according to the indictments, but apparently they were far short on substance, according to neighbors and relatives.
A federal indictment unsealed yesterday said seven young men arrested for allegedly attempting to establish an al-Qaida terrorist cell harbored dreams of forming an "Islamic Army" to unleash a "full ground war" against targets in the United States.
But the plot didn't get far. The men acquired combat boots, photographed targets and recited a loyalty pledge to al-Qaida - then told a government informant their organization was having "various problems."
"They certainly had the will," Miami U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said yesterday. "They were searching for the way."
Those arrested are: Patrick "Brother Pat" Abraham, 26; Burson "Brother B" Augustin, 21; Rotschild "Brother Rot" Augustine, 22; Narseal "Prince Manna" Batiste, 32; Naudimar "Brother Naudy" Herrera, 22; Lyglenson "Brother Levi" Lemorin, 31; and Stanley Grant "Brother Sunni" Phanor, 31.
All were indicted on two counts of conspiring to support a foreign terrorist organization, one count of conspiring to destroy buildings by use of explosives, and one count of conspiring to levy war against the government. Each faces a maximum sentence of 70 years.
The men's families, however, insisted the group was more humanitarian than military, and incapable of what it is accused of plotting.
"This is a very spiritual thing. It has nothing to do with terrorism," said Sylvain Plantin, cousin of one of the defendants.
Leo Casino, a musician who lives near the warehouse where some of the men were arrested Thursday, agreed. He said the suspects were vegetarians who fed the homeless.
The group didn't carry guns, Casino said, and "the neighbors weren't afraid of them."
The case may be a tough one for the government to prove because it weighs heavily on an informant's involvement, said Jeffrey Harris, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
"If the authorities created the crime, that's classic entrapment," he added.
According to the indictment, the seven men plotted to "kill all the devils we can" by blowing up FBI buildings in downtown Miami and four other cities, as well as Chicago's 110-story-tall Sears Tower.
"They hoped for their attacks to be, quote, 'just as good or greater than 9-11,'" U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said in Washington.
The group never obtained any bombs or weapons, but Acosta said the government decided to act before the plot developed further.
According to court documents, the FBI received a tip in October from a person who said Batiste wanted to overthrow the government and had tried to recruit him. The informant later infiltrated the group and told Batiste he wanted to evaluate it for funding.
The charging document said that starting in November, the men met with the informant and pledged an oath to al-Qaida in hopes of obtaining uniforms, cash, guns, radios and vehicles. In December, the informant produced eight pairs of military boots, a cell phone, $3,500 and a digital camera to photograph targets.
Batiste, a construction worker who once lived in Chicago, spoke about taking down the Sears Tower. "If I can put up a building, I should definitely know how to take one down," the brief quoted him as saying.
Though the government said the defendants dreamed grand schemes, they actually had a hard time maintaining their warehouse headquarters. A neighbor said the structure had no water or electricity and was lit by candles.
Though the government called the defendants a "radical Islamic group," Casino said they were not all Muslim. "I think it was a hodgepodge of religions - Muslim, Christian, even Hebrew Israelite," he said.
Each defendant except Phanor and Lemorin appeared yesterday in Miami federal court. A compact man with a shaved head, Batiste, the alleged ringleader, spoke softly and displayed little emotion as he answered questions.
Batiste said he was self-employed, earning roughly $30,000 annually. He said he had four children and owns no property worth more than $5,000.
Magistrate Patrick White ruled that all were entitled to be represented at no cost. The defendants are scheduled to be back in court June 30 for a bond hearing.
The U.S. attorney's office said Abraham was here illegally from Haiti. Others were native-born or had attained citizenship.
Lemorin and Phanor grew up on the same street in a working-class neighborhood in northwest Miami, family members said. Both were Haitian-American.
Lemorin was arrested in Atlanta, where his mother, Julian Olibrice, said he had been living for the past few months.