U.S. Terror Suspects Were Jihadi 'Wannabes'

More information is emerging about the seven South Florida men arrested in an alleged plot to blow up Chicago's Sears Tower and other buildings. The federal government said they were "Jihadist inspired" and were seeking to wage war on the United States. David Ovalle of the Miami Herald tells Debbie Elliott the men were mainly of Haitian descent, were not Muslims and were of modest means. He describes them as Jihadi "wannabes."

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

This weekend, new information is emerging about seven suspected terrorists who were arrested for allegedly plotting to blow up Chicago's Sears Tower and wage war against the United States. In a moment, we'll have a closer look at the government's decision to charge them with conspiracy and why that leaves some civil libertarians uneasy.

But first, to learn more about the suspects who were all from South Florida, we've called David Ovalle, a reporter with the Miami Herald.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. DAVID OVALLE (Reporter, Miami Herald): Hi. How are you?

ELLIOTT: Good. What can you tell us about these seven men?

Mr. OVALLE: They were all mostly Haitian-American. One was Dominican. They seem to be part of a sort of obscure sect living in a pretty impoverished neighborhood here in Miami that was made famous a couple decades ago for some race riots. Well, let's say infamous. But...

ELLIOTT: Liberty City neighborhood, right?

Mr. OVALLE: Yeah. Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. They seem to be drawn mostly to a guy named Narseal Batiste, who is sort of the ringleader. Apparently, very charismatic guy. He used to walk around his neighborhood with a wooden cane and a bathrobe on, and he used to kind of gather them around. And apparently he would lead them on exercises in the middle of the night. And kind of a baffling thing to some of the neighbors. Definitely not the traditional, you know, when you would think of a terrorist, hardcore Islamic fundamentalists or however you'd want to phrase it.

ELLIOTT: Now, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has said the men were inspired by a violent Jihadist message. Have you been able to find whether they were connected to any Islamist groups in South Florida?

Mr. OVALLE: No. I think they were more of the - the way everyone's talked to us about them, as sort of wannabes, you know, sympathizing with the cause. And in talking with the family members of some of these guys, they seem very anti-establishment.

ELLIOTT: Are they Muslim?

Mr. OVALLE: They're not actually Muslim, as far as we can tell. They seem to be subscribers to a sort of obscure sect that sort of blends Islam and Judaism and Christianity and also relies on self-discipline and martial arts. So we have not been referring to them as Muslim or Muslim extremists or anything like that.

ELLIOTT: It sounds like the neighbors had noticed that these men were acting in unusual ways, but it doesn't sound like very many people were alarmed. How did the government come to learn about this group?

Mr. OVALLE: From all indications, somebody tipped off the FBI and the FBI gets tips like this a lot. But they obviously deemed it credible enough to actually send in someone basically posing as an al-Qaida operative, al-Qaida link, and it kind of went from there. I mean, there's going to be a lot of - in, you know, legal defense circles, there's going to be a lot of questions as to how borderline entrapment this could be.

ELLIOTT: You're saying this because the al-Qaida link that this group had was actually an FBI...

Mr. OVALLE: Yes. Correct. Correct.

ELLIOTT: ...infiltrator...

Mr. OVALLE: Yes. Correct.

ELLIOTT: ...posing as an al-Qaida agent.

Mr. OVALLE: Right. So then you start to think, Well, you know, was their goading, you know, was anyone getting goaded along? Well, you know, how - you know, how influential was the informant in putting these ideas in their head? You never know. I mean, we don't know. We don't have answers to the questions and something will come out in the coming months.

ELLIOTT: Now, federal authorities have acknowledged that the alleged conspiracy was, quote, more aspirational than operational. What kind of resources did this group have? I mean, could they really have carried out a terrorist plot against the United States?

Mr. OVALLE: Well, that's what is the most interesting thing of this whole - of this whole episode, is that from all indications they didn't have a whole lot of money. They were very obscure. They didn't have money for the electricity. They were lighting the warehouse that they lived in, which they called their temple, with candles. They were selling shampoo and hair grease on the street corners. They ran a little construction company and, according to family members, would help homeless people in getting jobs. So it wasn't - you know, and if you read the indictment, there's also portions saying they just didn't have the money they needed. They needed resources to carry out their quote-unquote jihad. So you know, it's an interesting dynamic. It's an interesting - it's an interesting case.

ELLIOTT: David Ovalle of the Miami Herald. Thank you so much.

Mr. OVALLE: Thank you very much.

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