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.”