MIAMI – A plan hatched by seven men to blow up Chicago's Sears Tower and other buildings was "more aspirational than operational," FBI officials said.
The group of men, who were arrested Thursday when authorities busted their alleged hide-out in a Miami warehouse, had no explosives and lacked adequate funding. Their only link to Al Qaeda was through an FBI informant fronting as a member of the terrorist group, authorities said Friday.
But U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said it was exactly the right time to dismantle the group, before it was able to execute a plan that one member said he hoped would be "as good or greater than 9/11."
"You want to go and disrupt cells like this before they acquire the means to accomplish their goals," Acosta said.
Investigators said all members of the alleged plot were in custody on conspiracy charges.
Five of the defendants, including alleged ringleader Narseal Batiste, appeared in federal court in Miami on Friday under heavy security. They were brought in and out in single file, chained together at the wrists and wearing ankle chains.
"This group was more aspirational than operational," FBI Deputy Director John Pistole said. But Attorney General Alberto Gonzales described the men as "homegrown terrorists" who "view their home country as the enemy."
The FBI learned of the plot from someone the defendants tried to recruit, authorities said.
In February, Batiste told the informant 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," according to the indictment.
Batiste and a co-defendant provided the informant with photographs of the FBI building in North Miami Beach, as well as video footage of other Miami government buildings, and discussed a plot to bomb the FBI building, the indictment said.
Neighbors who watched the men's vigorous exercise regime said the group appeared to be training for something. One of its members was always standing guard outside the small, windowless warehouse in the blighted Liberty City neighborhood.
Relatives described the defendants as deeply religious people who studied the Bible and took classes in Islam. Joseph Phanor, the father of defendant Stanley Grant Phanor, said his son went to classes on Islam with a friend but that he read the Bible at his father's house.
Phanor's brother Michael said his brother owned a construction company and had been friends with this group for about a year. He said they were trying to do community service in the area where they grew up, studying martial arts to keep in shape and setting a good example for neighborhood kids.
A sixth defendant,Lyglenson Lemorin, was arrested in Atlanta and made a court appearance there. Phanor did not appear in court. He was in custody on what authorities said was an unrelated state charge.
The men, who range in age from 22 to 32, include a legal immigrant from Haiti and a Haitian who is in the United States illegally. Five are U.S. citizens.
No pleas were entered during the court hearings.
Officials at the 110-floor Sears Tower said it was business as usual Friday. The building, the tallest skyscraper in North America, has received numerous threats since Sept. 11, but officials said they have never found evidence of a credible threat that went beyond criminal discussions