7 Arrested in Miami in Alleged Terrorist Plot
Seven people were arrested Thursday in Miami in connection with a nascent plot that allegedly involved attacks against the Sears Tower in Chicago and federal buildings in South Florida, law enforcement officials said.
Indictments against the seven, including terrorism-related charges, are expected to be unsealed today in federal court in Miami.
The individuals, most of whom are believed to be American Muslim men, had been the target of an ongoing FBI investigation involving an informant posing as an Al Qaeda operative. The investigation began more than a year ago.
The men are believed to have discussed with the informant the possibility of attacking the 110-floor Sears Tower -- the nation’s tallest building -- and the FBI office in Miami.
But whether the plot moved beyond the talking stages or ever posed a serious threat to the public was not known late Thursday.
Federal authorities were not believed to have uncovered any bomb-making material or other weapons as part of the raid.
One law enforcement official, who requested anonymity because the investigation was ongoing, said the arrests illustrated how federal authorities were rooting out threats at their earliest stages.
Televised images of FBI agents swarming a warehouse in the Liberty City area of Miami highlighted the possibility of an unusual homegrown case of domestic terrorism.
Officials offered few details about the case Thursday night. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales is scheduled to discuss it this morning in Washington and to announce the unsealing of indictments.
The U.S. attorney in Miami, R. Alexander Acosta, is also to speak about the case today.
A federal grand jury in Miami is believed to have indicted the men on several counts, including conspiring to provide material support to terrorists.
The material-support law has been a popular legal tool used by the Justice Department to cut down what it has viewed as evolving threats against the nation.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, asked about the arrests Thursday while he was taping an interview on CNN, declined to provide details because of what he said was then an “ongoing operation.”
“Whenever we undertake an operation like this, we would not do it without the approval of a judge. We’ve got search warrants and arrest warrants and the like. And so yes, it’s a concern,” Mueller said.
Mueller said the case was “an example of a close cooperation of ourselves working with state and local law enforcement to address a threat.”
At FBI headquarters in Washington, spokesman Richard Kolko said: “There is no imminent threat to Miami or any other area because of these operations.” He declined further comment.
Neighbors of the Liberty City warehouse told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel the suspects had said they were organizing a karate school.
After blocking streets for about five hours Thursday, FBI agents used a blowtorch to take off the warehouse’s metal door.
Neighbors told the paper the suspects had said they were Muslim and had tried to recruit young people to join their group.
Residents near the warehouse said the men, who appeared to be in their teens or 20s, had lived in the area about a year.
They slept in the building, said Tashawn Rose, 29.
“They would come out late at night and exercise,” she told the paper. “It seemed like a military boot camp that they were working on there. They would come out and stand guard.”
She said she had talked to one of them about a month ago.
“They seemed brainwashed. They said they had given their lives to Allah,” Rose said.
Connections to terrorists and terrorism suspects have been uncovered before in South Florida. Several of the Sept. 11 hijackers -- including ringleader Mohamed Atta -- lived and trained in the region for a time.
Jose Padilla, held for more than three years in a military jail as an “enemy combatant” accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” in the U.S., also once lived in the area. Padilla was charged last year in Miami with being part of a terrorist cell for Islamic extremists, and he is to go on trial this fall.
In Chicago, police said the city had not been put on heightened alert, the Chicago Tribune reported. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the 103rd-floor observation deck at the Sears Tower was closed for several weeks.
“Law enforcement continues to tell us that they have never found evidence of a credible terrorism threat against Sears Tower that has gone beyond criminal discussions,” Sears Tower managing director Barbara Carley said in a statement Thursday.