WASHINGTON – The seven men described as "homegrown terrorists" were due in court Friday after being indicted and charged with conspiring with Al Qaeda to "levy war against the United States."
The men, arrested Thursday night in Miami in a raid by federal agents, are charged with trying to, among other thing, commit acts of violence that included blowing up Chicago's Sears Tower and an FBI building in Florida. Each count holds a punishment of 15 to 20 years in prison.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Friday that the seven suspects were part of a group that sought to work with Al Qaeda but ended up conspiring instead with a law enforcement informant. These men were living and working in the cities they were planning on attacking, Gonzales said, just as the Madrid, London and Toronto bombers — or would-be bombers — were.
"They were persons who for whatever reason came to view their home country as the enemy," Gonzalez said.
The men were taken into custody Thursday when authorities swarmed a warehouse in the Liberty City area of Miami, removing a metal door with a blow torch.
The men — five of whom are American citizens — along with others yet unknown, set out to "combine, conspire, confederate, and agree to provide material support and resources" to Al Qaeda "by agreeing to provide personnel, including themselves, to work under Al Qaeda's direction and control, knowing that Al Qaeda has engaged or engages in terrorist activity," according to a four-count indictment handed up Thursday against the seven men.
Click here to read the indictment. (pdf)
Five are U.S. citizens, one is a legal immigrant from Haiti and the other is a Haitian national who was in this country illegally. All had taken an oath to Al Qaeda and sought help from someone they believed was a member of the terrorist organization, the indictment alleged.
Five of the defendants, including alleged ringleader Narseal Batiste, made their initial appearances in federal court in downtown Miami on Friday. They were brought into and out of the courtroom under heavy security in single file, chained together at the wrists and wearing ankle chains.
No pleas were entered during the brief hearing. U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick White scheduled another hearing for next Friday to consider a motion by prosecutors that the defendants be kept in custody until trial. White also appointed lawyers for Batiste and the four others after each said he could not afford one.
In answer to the judge's questions, Batiste said he was "self-employed" and earned about $30,000 a year, but he provided no details. He also said he has four children.
Another defendant was scheduled to make a court appearance in Atlanta. It was not immediately clear when the seventh man would have his first appearances.
According to the indictment, during meetings with who they believed were Al Qaeda representatives but in fact were Justice Department officials, the men asked for items such as uniforms, machine guns, radio gear and thousands of dollars in cash.
"We want to kill all the devils we can," they said, according to the indictment. The seven suspects were expected to appear in court later Friday.
Gonzales said terror threats now may come from smaller, more loosely defined cells not directly affiliated by Al Qaeda "but who are inspired by a violent jihadist message."
These "homegrown terrorists" may be just as dangerous as Al Qaeda itself, he added, and they live in the areas they intend to attack;
"It's a problem we face here in the United States, as well," Gonzales said.
Gonzales said the terror suspects had the intent to carry out the attacks, but not necessarily the capability at the time of their arrest.
"We try to identify plots in the earliest stages possible because we don't know what we don't know about a terrorism plot. Once we have sufficient information to move forward with a prosecution, that's what we do and that is what has occurred here," Gonzales said. "We took action when we did because we believe we have an obligation to protect America ... We felt that the combination of the planning and overt acts taken were sufficient to go forward with this prosecution. There is no immediate threat."
The defendants are identified as: Batiste, also known as "Brother Naz" and "Prince Manna;" Rotschild Augustine, or "Brother Rot"; Patrick Abraham, or "Brother Pat"; Stanley Grant Phanor, or "Brother Sunni"; Naudimar Herrera or "Brother Naudy"; and Lyglenson Lemorin, also known as "Brother Levi" or Brother Levi-El."
As to whether all of the cell members have been arrested, Gonzales would not go further than to say the investigation is ongoing.
"Today's incitement is an important step forward in the war on terrorism here in the United States," said FBI Deputy Director John Pistole. "It also reminds us we have much more work today. As the indictment alleges, the threat of terrorism exists right here on American soil."
He continued: "These seven individuals are members of a homegrown terror cell. They lived and worked in the United States and enjoyed all the great freedom our nation offered. Yet they pledged their allegiance to Al Qaeda, or at least who they thought was Al Qaeda."
He noted that the suspects planned attacks as big, if not bigger, than those of Sept. 11, 2001, that killed over 3,000 people.
"The struggle is far from over. We cannot afford to become complacent, as the threats are real, and the stakes are high," Pistole added.
During a press conference later in Miami, Jonathan Solomon, FBI special agent in charge of the Miami office, stressed that the indictment is against individuals, "it is not an indictment against any religion or segments of our community."
Chicago Police Superintendent Phil Cline said the Sears Tower, the nation's tallest building, is secure and no explosives were found. Cline said the investigation of the plot is ongoing, but that there have been no arrests in Chicago and no search warrants were executed in the city.
"There were never any imminent danger to the Sears Tower or the city of Chicago," he said.
Security at the 110-floor Sears Tower was ramped up after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the 103rd-floor skydeck was closed for about a month and a half. 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.
'They Seemed Brainwashed'
According to the indictment, Batiste, beginning in November 2005, recruited and trained the others "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 Qaeda, pledged an oath to the terrorist organization and supported an Al Qaeda plot to destroy FBI buildings, the four-count indictment charged. That included taking photographs of the FBI building in North Miami Beach, Fla., as well as video and photographs of other federal buildings in Miami-Dade County.
R. Alexander Acosta, U.S. attorney for Southern Florida, said during a later press conference Friday that Batiste was considered the leader of the group. The alleged cell would meet at building Batiste referred to as "the embassy" in Miami-Dade County.
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.
"Their stated objective was to form and to train an army of soldiers to wage this war," Acosta said.
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 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."
"The FBI is treating them more with having aspirations than actually being operatives but the fact is, we learned from Sept. 11 that the police have to very seriously, in a case involving suspected terrorists ... and I think this case shows our law enforcement has, in fact, ramped up our domestic security," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told FOX News. "I think Americans can take some degree of comfort in the fact that they were, law enforcement, was all over this and stopped it before it became something else."
The indictment describes the alleged plot as follows:
At a meeting on March 16 at a warehouse in the Miami area, the seven defendants discussed a plot to bomb FBI buildings in five cities, it said, adding that each swore an oath of loyalty to Al Qaeda there with the purported Al Qaeda representative.
The person they believed to be an Al Qaeda 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 Qaeda 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 Qaeda 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 Qaeda nonetheless, the document said.
FOXNews.com's Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.