MIAMI – The star witness in the retrial of six men accused of plotting to destroy Chicago's Sears Tower and bomb FBI offices testified Tuesday that the group was fully committed to the terrorist attacks and that the FBI did not entrap the men as defense attorneys claim.
The witness, paid FBI informant Elie Assad, posed as an Al Qaeda operative sent in late 2005 and 2006 to help alleged ringleader Narseal Batiste with the plot. Assad said he had no doubt that Batiste was serious and rejected defense claims that the whole thing was orchestrated by the FBI.
"He clearly had a plan from the beginning," Assad said. "He knew exactly what he was doing. All he needed was finances and support from a terrorist organization."
Assad's testimony came as the retrial in the so-called "Liberty City Seven" case entered its second month. The first trial ended in December in a mistrial for six of the men when jurors could not agree on verdicts, and a seventh man was acquitted.
The second trial has largely echoed the first. But prosecutors on Tuesday sought to hammer home for the new jury their contention that Batiste fully intended to blow up the Sears Tower, the tallest building in the U.S., and FBI offices in Miami and other cities, even if he and his group had no explosives.
Prosecutors say Batiste thought the attacks would undermine the U.S. government, which he described in taped conversations as "the kingdom of Satan" that must be destroyed.
"This government is evil, is of the devil," Batiste, 34, said in one conversation taped by the FBI.
Assad, who pretended to be an Al Qaeda emissary named Brother Mohammed, said it was clear Batiste was serious from their first meeting in December 2005. Batiste testified in the first trial that he was only playing along with terrorism in hopes of conning Assad out of $50,000 (euro32,882), but Assad said he does not believe that.
"If you don't get the money, you don't continue for six or seven months," Assad testified. "You turn your back and you leave."
Defense lawyers have focused repeatedly on Batiste's interest in getting money and suggested the supposed terrorism plots wouldn't have gone forward without the FBI's involvement. Albert Levin, who represents defendant Patrick Abraham, asked Assad if he was "stringing them along" so the FBI could make high-profile terrorism arrests.
No, Assad answered. Batiste was "seeking help from a terror organization for his plans in the United States — to try to get help from Al Qaeda to continue his mission."
Batiste, a struggling construction contractor, was the leader of a Miami sect of the Moorish Science Temple, a group that blends aspects of several religions and claims to be a sovereign nation within the U.S. A key piece of evidence is FBI tapes showing Batiste and the others pledging loyalty to Al Qaeda and forming an alliance with the terrorist group.
Batiste is expected to testify later this month when defense lawyers put on their case. He has worn soft cardigan sweaters throughout much of the second trial, in contrast with the dark business suits he had on during the first.
The men face up to 70 years in prison if convicted of four terrorism-related conspiracy charges. The seventh man originally arrested in June 2006, 33-year-old Lyglenson Lemorin, faces deportation to Haiti despite his acquittal late last year.
Lemorin's immigration attorney, Charles Kuck, said Tuesday that a judge in Atlanta denied his release on bail but did agree to shift the deportation proceedings from Atlanta to Miami. Lemorin had sought the change to be closer to key witnesses in his case.