The suspects – five Americans and two foreigners – arrested on Thursday after approaching an undercover FBI agent who they thought was an agent of al-Qaeda, were described as a cult.
They were accused of trying to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago with help from al-Qaeda. But authorities said the men never actually made contact with the terrorist network and were instead caught in an FBI sting involving an informant who posed as an al-Qaeda operative.
Federal prosecutors said the men, who operated out of a warehouse in Liberty City, a poor section of Miami, took an oath to al-Qaeda and plotted to create an “Islamic army” bent on violence against the US.
The charges stated that the group, calling itself the “Seas of David“, had studied the Sears Tower and other buildings as possible targets.
Those arrested ranged in age from 22 to 32 and included an immigrant from Haiti and a Haitian who was in the US illegally.
Group leader Narseal Batiste told the undercover agent he was “organising a mission to wage jihad”. Batiste requested money, boots, uniforms, machine-guns, radios and vehicles.
The suspects were not Muslims, local Islamic leaders said.
“As far as we are concerned they have no relation with our community, their ideology has nothing in common with the ideology of Islam and they should not be called Muslim,” said Ahmed Bedier, of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“This seems like some sort of cult group.”
Residents living near the group also said the men appeared to be part of a cult of at least 12 people, slept in the warehouse and dressed in military-like clothing.
One alleged member of the group, a black man with dreadlocks who called himself Brother Cory, denied the Seas of David was a terrorist group.
“We are not terrorists . . . We study and believe in the word of God. This is a place where we worship,” Cory told CNN.
Although the arrested men were not Muslims, another Islamic leader, Areeb Naseer, said he feared a backlash against the Muslim community.
Officials said that no weapons or explosives had been seized and there was no immediate threat in either Chicago or Miami.
Five of the defendants, including Batiste, appeared in federal court in Miami on Friday under heavy security.
Lyglenson Lemorin was arrested in Atlanta and made a court appearance there.
Kendall Coffey, a former US attorney in Florida said: “While they may be seen as bungling wannabes, they are potentially dangerous wannabes who, based on the allegations, were pursuing extremely dangerous plans.”
Joseph Phanor, father of Stanley Grant Phanor, who is on other charges and did not appear in court, said he did not believe “anything they say about” his son.
“This boy, he’s not a violent boy. He never got into trouble. He didn’t want to kill people,” Mr Phanor said.
Prosecutors said Batiste began recruiting and training the others in November. The FBI learnt of the plot from someone the defendants tried to recruit, authorities said.
No pleas were entered; a bail hearing will be held on Friday.