Jury hears secretly recorded conversation as testimony ends in Miami terrorism case

MIAMI — A former ally of a man accused of leading a conspiracy to destroy Chicago’s Sears Tower and bomb FBI buildings expressed concerns that plans were being hatched to acquire weapons for a “physical war” inside the U.S., according to an FBI tape played in court Tuesday.

The May 2006 conversation between the suspected plot leader, Narseal Batiste, and a man he has called his spiritual adviser, Master G.J.G. Atheea, marked the end of testimony in the trial of the so-called “Liberty City Seven.” Closing arguments are scheduled for Thursday, and jurors could begin deliberations by week’s end.

Atheea, a self-described spiritual missionary who was born George James Gray, agreed to secretly record his conversation with Batiste outside the group’s headquarters known as “The Embassy,” in Miami’s depressed Liberty City neighborhood.

On the tape, Atheea said he was worried that Batiste was working with the “Arabian mafia” to stockpile weapons for a violent mission, rather than working to build up the local community through a spiritual message.

“I’m talking about dealing with a spiritual war,” Atheea told Batiste. “It seems like you’re talking about a physical war.”

Batiste said he had not acquired any weaponry but acknowledged he had access. Batiste, 33, had been outlining plans for the suspected Sears Tower attack with a man he knew as “Brother Mohammed” from al-Qaida – a man actually working as an informant for the FBI.

“I was offered weapons,” Batiste said on the tape. “I was offered anything that I needed to do whatever I needed to do for the mission.”

Later, Atheea asked whether Batiste was “thinking about doing subversive work against this nation … in a diabolical way.”

“I don’t consider this, this place here to be a legitimate nation,” Batiste answered, referring in another part of the tape to vague discussions with “the brothers in the East.”

Prosecutors contend that Batiste adhered to a separatist religious sect known as the Moorish Science Temple, which blends aspects of Islam, Christianity and Judaism and does not recognize the U.S. government.

They say Batiste dreamed of bringing down the 110-story Sears Tower and bombing FBI offices in Miami and elsewhere as the first salvo in a broad insurrection against the government, and eagerly welcomed help from al-Qaida to accomplish his goal.

Batiste and his six co-defendants face as many as 70 years in prison if convicted of four terrorism-related conspiracy charges. U.S. authorities have said that the purported plot never got beyond the discussion stage and that the accused did not obtain explosives or military weaponry.

Batiste, who testified extensively in his own defense, has insisted that his dark talk of terrorism was only a ruse aimed at extorting $50,000 from Mohammed. Batiste testified that he never truly intended to stage attacks and that his six associates were not informed about the plot.

FBI agent Anthony Velazquez testified Tuesday that he never overheard Batiste talking about his ruse on any of the hundreds of telephone intercepts or conversations captured on listening devices during an eight-month investigation.

“I’ve never heard any conversation between Mr. Batiste and anyone regarding a scam, a fraud or a con,” Velazquez said.

Seas of David: Oddballs tried mix of creeds & religions

The details emerging yesterday about the seven accused wanna-be jihadists did not make up a picture of your standard Islamic terrorists.

Either Haitian immigrants or the sons of Haitian immigrants, they belonged to an off-the-wall Biblical sect called the Seas of David that mixed elements of Christianity and Islam.

Their leader, Narseal Batiste, was known in his native Chicago for his large, wooden walking stick, flowing robes and matching headdress – either white or purple.

“He used to stand on the corner for a long time talking up at the sky and holding a big stick,” said Sarah Villasensor, 53, who owns the Latina Jewelry store a few doors down from where Batiste used to live. “He would stay for hours right there.”

Batiste, at 32 the oldest of the group, imposed an ascetic regime: no women, no booze, no drugs, no meat and lots of martial arts. They affected a military bearing and wore black uniforms with homemade shoulder patches that some described as a Star of David.

“We study and we train through the Bible, not only physical but mentally,” a member calling himself Brother Corey told CNN. “We are not no terrorists.”

A close friend of one of the defendants said Batiste’s teachings came from the Moorish Science Temple of America, an early 19th century religion that blends Christianity, Judaism and Islam with a heavy influence on self-discipline through martial arts.

In Miami’s Little Haiti, where several of the suspects lived, relatives insisted they were hardworking family men who worshiped Jesus, not jihad.

“There’s something really wrong here. We are not terrorists,” said Sandra Blanchard, 29, cousin of suspect Stanley Phanor, a construction worker.

Blanchard said her cousin was a devout Catholic and was “being framed” in an indictment that charged the men were “building an Islamic army” to wage jihad against America.

Phanor’s mother, Elizene Phanor, showed reporters her son’s Bible, stored with his tools. “My son never did nothing wrong,” she said in agitation.

Blanchard said Stanley Phanor had gotten serious about religion about a year and a half ago. “He studies the Bible and cares only for Jesus,” she said.

Stanley Phanor did not appear in court yesterday. He was in jail for violating probation on a 2002 charge of carrying a concealed weapon.

Five others, including Batiste, appeared in federal court in Miami chained together.

Batiste told the court he was self-employed, a father of four and earned about $30,000 a year.

The seventh suspect, Lyblenson Lemorin, Stanley Phanor’s childhood friend, was arraigned in Atlanta, where he has been living with his wife, Charlene, and at least one child for several months.

His public defender, Jimmy Hardy, said they were set up by the government informant who posed as a jihadist. “The only Al Qaeda is the FBI guy,” he told reporters.

Lemorin’s sister told CNN that he quit the Miami group and went to Georgia four months ago because he thought it was involved in “witchcraft.”