Seven men were charged yesterday with waging war on the United States after they were arrested and accused of plotting to blow up America’s tallest building.
The arrests in Miami and Atlanta of five Americans and two Haitians, who were accused of pledging allegiance to al-Qa’eda, represent the most serious case of suspected homegrown Islamic terrorism uncovered in the US since the September 11 attacks.
Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general, said the men, who were held overnight in raids at a warehouse in Miami and in Atlanta, had sought to bring down Chicago’s 110-floor Sears Tower and attack an FBI building in Florida. They had conspired to “levy war” on America, he said.
Five of the men, who are aged between 22 and 32, are US citizens and long-term Miami residents, prompting comparisons with the domestic terrorism plots broken up in Canada earlier this year, and the July 7 bombings in London.
No weapons or explosives were found when FBI agents raided a warehouse where the men lived and trained, with one senior official describing their plans as “aspirational” rather than “operational”.
The arrests will nevertheless be seen as an important step in the Bush administration’s campaign against terrorism.
They also raise the possibility that other home-grown cells exist in a country that has prided itself on the lack of extremism among its Muslim population.
At a press conference in Washington, Mr Gonzales stressed the potential threat posed by the men, radical Islamic converts, and others like them.
“They were persons who for whatever reason came to view their home country as the enemy,” he said.
The FBI infiltrated the group last December when an agent posed as a member of al-Qa’eda. Residents had tipped off the authorities to the men’s suspicious activities at the Miami warehouse, which included late-night military drills.
According to the four-count federal indictment, a man identified as Narseal Batiste started recruiting and training to build an “Islamic army to wage Jihad” against the US.
He later boasted to the FBI agent that he planned to “kill all the devils we can” in a mission that would be “just as good or greater than 9/11”.
The indictment alleges that to obtain money and support for their mission, the conspirators sought help from al-Qa’eda and pledged an oath of allegiance to the network.
Batiste asked the FBI agent for boots, uniforms, machine guns, radios, vehicles and $50,000 (?27,500) in cash.
John Pistole, the FBI’s deputy director, stressed that the group had not been in contact with the “real” al-Qa’eda.
Asked how close the group was to attacking the Sears Tower, he said one of the men was familiar with the building but their plans did not extend beyond broad discussions.
For an additional attack on FBI headquarters in Miami, the group requested and was given a digital video camera for reconnaissance work.
“There is no imminent threat to Miami or any other area because of these operations,” said Richard Kolko, an FBI spokesman.
Five of the men appeared in a Miami court last night, four of them in khaki prison fatigues and shackles.
The judge said charges would be formally brought at a further hearing next Friday. If convicted they could each face jail terms of up to 70 years, prosecutors said.
According to the sister of one the men, the cell, known as “The Seas of David“, consisted of up to 50 members who considered themselves “soldiers of God” and were against the war in Iraq.
But Joseph Phanor, the father of Stanley Grant Phanor, said he did not believe “anything they say about” his son being involved in terrorism.
Neighbours of the warehouse described it as “a military boot camp”.
“They would come out and stand guard. They seemed brainwashed. They said they had given their lives to Allah,” said Tashawn Rose.
Another neighbour said: “They dressed all in black, wrapping a turban-like cloth around their heads so that only their eyes were showing.”
Last year, President Bush said at least 10 serious al-Qa’eda plots had been thwarted at home and overseas since September 11.