The biggest Al Qaeda plot the FBI claimed to have foiled in the years following the 9/11 attacks involved no weapons, no plot, and no Al Qaeda. Instead, the vague, implausible threat by a group of construction workers in Florida to blow up U.S. buildings, including Chicago’s Sears Tower, was mostly the making of the FBI, whose undercover operatives sought out the men, promised them money, and coached them over months to implicate themselves in a conspiracy to commit violent acts they never actually intended or had the means to carry out.
The “Liberty City Seven” case — known by its connection to the poor, violence-ridden Miami neighborhood where the men involved lived — was the most high-profile FBI investigation of a supposed terrorist cell after the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. It came as the bureau, which had failed to act on intelligence it had received before 9/11, faced enormous pressure to predict and stop the next attack, setting off its transformation, in the words of former Deputy Director John Pistole, “from reactive crime-solving agency to preventative national security agency.”
The ordeal of the seven Black men, most of them Haitian American, who were manipulated by two paid FBI informants into pledging allegiance to Al Qaeda is recounted in a new Frontline documentary, “In the Shadow of 9/11,” by British director Dan Reed.
“It was kind of really absurd, almost unbelievable,” said Reed, who has previously directed documentaries about terror attacks in Moscow and Mumbai. “I didn’t really understand how the Liberty City guys could have got themselves in this predicament.”
The story of the seven men, five of whom were sentenced to a cumulative 43 years in federal prison in connection to the case, is a largely forgotten tale about the lengths to which government agencies were empowered to go in the panicked aftermath of 9/11 and about the absurdities the U.S. criminal justice apparatus sold to the public in the name of national security. The case is indicative of how quickly the so-called war on terror morphed into a battle to shape a narrative: that there was a real threat — and that the U.S. government was winning.
The case set the stage for hundreds of FBI sting operations in the following years, as the bureau continued to frame individuals who were often poor, credulous, and had dubious ability to independently plan any attacks. In doing so, the agency leaned on a sprawling surveillance apparatus set up after 9/11 and used constitutionally protected speech as a basis for monitoring people, even as bureau officials regularly denied doing so. FBI agents relied heavily on well-paid informants operating with little accountability. And they expanded the stings to an ever-growing list of supposed threats: not only foreign-inspired ideologies but also domestic ones, like that posed by what the FBI called “black identity extremism.”
As The Intercept has detailed in the “Trial and Terror” database, most of the nearly 1,000 people the U.S. has prosecuted for terrorism since 9/11 never came close to committing an act of violence. Like the Liberty City Seven, most had no connection to terrorist groups and many were set up in FBI stings.
Those cases were not only unnecessary, colossal wastes of investigative and prosecutorial resources that destroyed people’s lives, but they also distorted the American public’s understanding of security threats after 9/11.
“What terrorists want to do is spread terror, they want to make people afraid that there will be more terror attacks,” said Reed. “And when the government goes in and essentially makes terrorists that way, then that’s achieving the terrorists’ aims. It’s making the American public more afraid.”
The story of the Liberty City Seven, pieced together in the documentary through interviews as well as hours of surveillance footage and audio recorded by the informants, is so tragic and farcical it is hard to fathom that it was a real FBI operation.
The supposed terror cell’s ringleader, Narseal Batiste, was a construction business owner and eccentric spiritual guru with a small following of men faithful to the Moorish Science Temple of America, a mix of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam whose primary belief is the improvement of African Americans’ condition. His associates were mostly poor, young men hustling on the streets of Miami. With Batiste self-styled as their “divine leader,” they mostly offered martial arts training and spiritual teachings to neighborhood kids.
The FBI learned of the group when a Yemeni convenience store clerk who had once worked as an informant for the New York Police Department claimed to the bureau that the group had asked him to make a connection with Al Qaeda. The tip seemed improbable even to the FBI, but the agency hired the clerk as an informant and concocted a scheme to introduce the group to yet another informant who claimed to be connected to Osama bin Laden. Batiste, who was struggling to pay off business-related debts, seized on what he thought was an opportunity to scam the two men out of money, which they kept promising while leading Batiste to make progressively more compromising statements of support for Al Qaeda. He played along.
In one of the exchanges that sealed his fate, Batiste agreed to provide one of the informants with a list of items he supposedly needed to carry out an attack in Chicago — including, for some reason, knee-high boots. “I had to make up something up right then and there,” says Batiste, whom FBI surveillance video shows struggling to differentiate a pistol from a machine gun before his unrelenting handler. “I didn’t know any names of guns. I had never owned a gun.”
Pressed by the informants, Batiste repeated a bizarrely written oath of allegiance to Al Qaeda and, crucially, convinced his six associates to do so as well. Led on further, he made bombastic statements about a made-up plot to blow up buildings and shoot survivors, at one point boasting that it would be “greater than 9/11.” After yet more pressure, he agreed to drive around Miami, in a vehicle and with a camera the FBI had provided, to snap photos of federal buildings.
Throughout the ordeal, Batiste believed that he was conning the FBI informants, who themselves were manufacturing a threat they knew was not real. The end goal for both parties was to cash in.
Not even the FBI agents working with the informants to set up the sting believed that the threat was real, yet the Justice Department cited Batiste’s “overt acts” to bring terrorism-related charges.
The Justice Department touted the case as a major victory in its newly launched war on terror, even as officials were aware that the seven “weren’t really the terrorists that we were seeking out,” said Michael Mullaney, a former chief of the Justice Department’s Counterterrorism Section, in the documentary.
It became apparent that the case was staged by the government as soon as the seven were arrested in June 2006. Justice Department officials tried to rationalize their decision to prosecute the men by insisting that they were guilty of the acts they were convicted of: swearing allegiance to a terrorist organization and taking photos of federal buildings. They justified stings as a tool to predict who might plot an attack, rather than traps set out for individuals who likely would have never thought to do so had the FBI not written the script for them.
“The problem with terrorism cases is you have to stop the act, and so you really in a way have to predict who is going to do what,” said Mullaney. “And so stings are very important.”
The documentary, telling the story of a scam, seems to conclude that the victims are not just the seven men and their families but also the American people, whose government fabricated fear to justify its powers.
In the film, Mike German, a former FBI special agent who did undercover work for terrorism investigations before 9/11, says that had he told his superiors that he wanted to initiate an operation targeting individuals who did not belong to a terrorist group, did not have any weapons, and did not have a plot — and that the FBI itself would provide all those things in the course of the operation — “they would have sent me for counseling.”
The 9/11 attacks changed that, ushering in a “no lead goes uncovered” policy at the bureau that forced agents to pursue any tip that came in, no matter how far-fetched or improbable and regardless of the civil rights implications. That those tips often came from informants with clear financial agendas did not stop the bureau.
In the Liberty City case, the FBI went much further than checking out an unlikely tip. Even as the agents quickly realized that Batiste and the others posed no credible threat, they kept pushing forward, investing countless hours and resources into the sting. After the first trial ended with a hung jury, prosecutors tried it two more times before getting any convictions in 2009.
Rather than abandoning stings as pointless and harmful, the FBI doubled down on them.
The operation became a cautionary tale within the bureau, which used it as a case study to train informants on how not to cross a line and to master the art of manipulation while steering clear of the legal threshold for entrapment. Rather than abandoning stings as pointless and harmful, however, the FBI doubled down on them, in some cases even providing weapons to the individuals they set up.
Trevor Aaronson, a contributor to The Intercept and the author of a book about FBI stings, says in the documentary that the bureau’s takeaway from the case seemed to be that “if they can convict these guys in Miami, they convict just about anybody.”
In the following years, the FBI did just that, prosecuting hundreds of people, including at least 350 who were set up in sting operations, mostly through paid informants.
The bureau manipulated a group of Black men in Newburgh, New York, to plant what they thought to be functioning bombs by two synagogues. In Ferguson, Missouri, after the police killing of Michael Brown led to widespread protests, federal agents framed two young protesters and coached them into a plan to blow up St. Louis’s iconic Gateway Arch, before retroactively referring to their conviction to describe a new category of domestic extremism and expand surveillance of Black activists. At Standing Rock, the agency relied on an FBI informant who became romantically involved with an Indigenous activist and whose gun was used in what ended up becoming the most severe prosecution in connection to protests against the Dakota Access pipeline.
“I was hoping they would learn that this case” — Liberty City — “was an overreach, they had gone too far, and perhaps undermined public trust in the counterterrorism tactics that they were using,” German says in the documentary, referring to the FBI. “But they seem to have taken the opposite lesson.”