Lawyers Point to Fine Line Between Sting and Entrapment
Standing in an empty Miami warehouse on May 24 with a man he believed had ties
to Osama bin Laden, a dejected Narseal Batiste talked of the setbacks to their
terrorist plot and then uttered the words that helped put him in a federal prison
"I want to fight some jihad," he allegedly said. "That's all
I live for."
What Batiste did not know was that the bin Laden representative was really
an FBI informant. The warehouse in which they were meeting had been rented and
wired for sound and video by bureau agents, who were monitoring his every word.
Within a month, Batiste, 32, and six of his compatriots were arrested and charged
with conspiracy to aid a terrorist organization and bomb a federal building.
On June 23, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales held a news conference to announce
the destruction of a terrorist cell inside the United States, hailing "our
commitment to preventing terrorism through energetic law enforcement efforts
aimed at detecting and thwarting terrorist acts."
But court records released since then suggest that what Gonzales described
as a "deadly plot" was virtually the pipe dream of a few men with
almost no ability to pull it off on their own. The suspects have raised questions
in court about the FBI informants' role in keeping the plan alive.
The plot featured self-proclaimed militant religious leaders who referred to
themselves as kings, talked of establishing their own nation inside the United
States, called their headquarters an embassy and discussed plans to train their
recruits to use bows and arrows. One of their quixotic notions was to blow up
Chicago's Sears Tower.
Batiste's father, a Christian preacher and former contractor who lives in Louisiana,
told the news media after the indictment that his son was "not in his right
mind" and needed psychiatric treatment.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, separating serious terrorist plotters from
delusional dreamers has proved one of the FBI's most challenging tasks. The
effort is complicated by the bureau's frequent use of informants who sometimes
play active roles in the plotting.
U.S. law enforcement officials say they do not have the luxury of waiting for
a terrorist plot to mature before they break it up. A delay, they say, could
mean that a member of the plot they had not discovered might be able to pull
off an attack.
At the news conference, Gonzales acknowledged that Batiste was nowhere near
carrying out a terrorist act.
"Our philosophy here is that we try to identify plots in the earliest
stages possible, because we don't know what we don't know about a terrorist
plot," he said. It is dangerous to evaluate in advance that "this
is a really dangerous group; this is not a dangerous group," he added.
But lawyers for the defendants have raised questions about where a government
sting ends and entrapment begins. Not only did government informants provide
money and a meeting place for Batiste and his followers, but they also gave
them video cameras for conducting surveillance, as well as cellphones, and suggested
that their first target be a Miami FBI office, court records show.
At the hearing, Batiste's attorney, John Wylie, showed that the FBI's investigation
found no evidence that his client had met with any real terrorist, received
e-mails or wire transfers from the Middle East, possessed any al-Qaeda literature,
or had even a picture of bin Laden.
Asked for a response, a Justice Department spokesman referred a reporter to
Gonzales's remarks about the case.
Court documents and testimony at hearings describe how the plot unfolded. Last
October, Batiste allegedly contacted a Middle Eastern-born Miami resident who
was about to travel to Yemen. The man dealt in fresh produce; Batiste was unaware
that he was also a paid informant for the FBI.
The man -- known only as CW1 in court documents -- told his FBI handlers that
Batiste had spoken of forming an army to wage jihad and overthrow the federal
government. He said Batiste was "willing to work with al Qaeda to accomplish
the mission and wanted to travel with [the informant] overseas to make appropriate
connections," according to court documents.
The FBI would eventually pay the informant, who had previous arrests for assault
and marijuana possession, $10,500 for his services in the Batiste investigation
and reimburse him $8,815 for his expenses.
Over the next few weeks, the informant stayed in touch with Batiste and spent
a night at the "embassy" where the group was headquartered. He reported
seeing guns, karate practice and fighting drills that involved machetes.
By mid-November, the FBI decided to take a more active role. Agents introduced
a more experienced Middle Eastern-born informant, CW2, to play the role of a
potential financier to prevent Batiste from seeking money elsewhere. CW2, according
to court papers, had worked for the FBI for six years and provided information
that led to the arrests of two individuals on "terrorist-related charges."
But CW2 soon also took a key role in the plotting, suggesting targets and supplying
videotaping equipment, according to the court papers. His reward was $17,000
the FBI paid for his services, and approval of his petition for political asylum
in the United States.
At their initial meeting, the second informant said he was there to "evaluate"
Batiste's operation and asked what help he needed to carry out his "mission."
Batiste drew up a list that included "uniforms, boots, automatic hand pistols,
communications equipment like Nextel cell phones, an SUV truck, black in color,"
according to court documents. Two days later, he asked for more equipment, including
a "mini .223 Bushmaster" rifle.
Three days before Christmas, Batiste and CW2 met again, and Batiste talked
for the first time about destroying Chicago's Sears Tower, a landmark in a city
where he once worked as a FedEx delivery driver and still had associates. Batiste
said he would take advantage of the ensuing chaos to liberate Muslims from a
nearby jail. They would form an army powerful enough to force the U.S. government
to recognize the "Sovereign Moors" -- an offshoot of a religious group,
the Moorish Science Temple, to which Batiste claimed allegiance -- as an independent
A week later, when he met with CW2 again, Batiste asked for more firearms,
radios, binoculars, bulletproof vests, SUVs and $50,000 in cash. He also invited
the informant to join him on a trip to Chicago to meet his "two top generals"
and look at the Sears Tower. But the trip never took place.
By the beginning of January, CW2 had offered Batiste a rent-free warehouse
large enough for training. In reality, the FBI wanted a new meeting spot because
it could not carry out surveillance at the "embassy," which was located
in a high-crime area where agents would be easily spotted. At the same time,
however, Batiste began to mistrust CW2 because of his numerous questions and
ended direct contact with him for a while.
In mid-January, the first informant contacted Batiste's closest associate in
the group to report that approval for the plan had come from al-Qaeda operatives
in Yemen. When bin Laden issued a public statement saying that al-Qaeda would
soon strike in the United States, the informant passed word to Batiste that
it was a reference to the missions he was planning.
CW2 soon informed Batiste that an explosives expert in Europe -- actually a
Scotland Yard agent -- was ready to come and help.
On Feb. 19, Batiste met with CW2 in a videotaped session at the informant's
Miami apartment, where he "outlined his plan to wage jihad in the United
States," according to court records. Batiste said he would conduct a "full
ground war" and "kill all the devils we can," beginning with
"taking down the Sears Tower in Chicago and attacking a prison to free
Muslim Brothers who are incarcerated."
When Batiste grew impatient for money early in March, CW2 placated him by formally
swearing him into al-Qaeda. In a ceremony recorded by the FBI, the informant
read an English translation of the al-Qaeda loyalty oath, "welcomed Batiste
to al Qaeda and declared that al Qaeda and the Moors were officially united,"
according to court papers. The informant and Batiste also selected a two-story
warehouse as their new headquarters and training site.
On March 15, the FBI wired the warehouse for sound and video. The next night,
before a secret camera, CW2 administered an English translation of the al-Qaeda
oath to six members of Batiste's group, four of whom called themselves "prince"
and two who were addressed as "brother."
The men also face charges of conspiring to aid a terrorist group.
Acting on instructions from the FBI, CW2 told the group that his al-Qaeda bosses
were planning to attack FBI buildings in Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, New
York and Miami. He asked that Batiste and his group assist by providing video
of the Miami FBI building, "which would be sent back to al Qaeda overseas,"
according to court papers. He also gave Batiste a video camera.
In late March, driving a van provided by the informant, Batiste and two associates
videotaped and photographed the FBI building, as CW2 had requested. They also
taped the federal courthouse and detention center, and the Miami police headquarters.
CW2 later expressed interest in meeting Batiste's Chicago associates and said
al-Qaeda would pay to have them come to Miami. Batiste called Charles James
Stewart, also known as Sultan Khan Bey, and his wife in Chicago, where Stewart
leads his own branch of the Moorish Science Temple. With $3,500 in FBI money,
Batiste paid for them to come to Miami.
Court papers show that Stewart is a convicted rapist with a long arrest record
for other serious crimes. On April 11, with FBI cameras rolling, Stewart and
Batiste sat in the Miami warehouse and discussed opening a shop to sell marijuana
and drug pipes. They smoked marijuana as they talked, and Stewart revealed his
plan to build a Moorish nation of 10,000 people.
Stewart wanted to make his wife, whom he called Queen Zakiyaah, an ambassador
of the Moorish nation so she could not be detained by U.S. authorities. He said
Moorish soldiers would wear green uniforms and become expert with bows and arrows.
They would undergo night training that included jumping from a bridge into water
20 feet below.
But within days, Stewart and Batiste began to have differences over control
of the organization and its mission. On April 17, the conflict broke into the
open and Stewart tried Batiste under Moorish law on charges of treason and insubordination.
He questioned "his relationship and association with the Arabian or Nigerian
mafia," a reference to the second FBI informant.
Two days later, Stewart, now running what was left of Batiste's group, was
arrested by Miami police after he fired a shot at one of Batiste's supporters.
On May 5, after a local hearing on the shooting, federal weapons charges were
lodged against Stewart. Federal agents asked whether he knew of any plots against
the United States, and Stewart began talking about Batiste's mission as one
that was "starting to get serious," a phrase later cited in court
by prosecutors. Stewart became a witness against Batiste and the others.
The defendants have signaled that they will contest the government's actions.
At a July 5 detention hearing, Nathan Clark, an attorney for one member of the
group, told U.S. Magistrate Judge Ted E. Bandstra that the ceremony at which
the defendants took the al-Qaeda oath was "induced by the government themselves
in an effort to set these people up."
"What we see is this entire organization, by the government's own admission,
falling apart. . . . Nobody really believes that these people are capable of
doing anything," he said.
In the end, Bandstra ruled that the seven would have to remain in jail because
the allegations were "disturbing." But he added that "the plans
appear to be beyond the present ability of these defendants" and said he
expected their attorneys to argue the government's actions at trial.
Researchers Julie Tate and Madonna Lebling contributed
to this report.
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