Friday, June 23, 2006

Terrorism on the home front

Official: 7 Arrested in Sears Tower plot

By KELLI KENNEDY, Associated Press Writer

MIAMI -- Seven people were arrested Thursday in connection with the early stages of a plot to attack Chicago's Sears Tower and other buildings in the U.S., including the
FBI office here, a federal law enforcement official said.

As part of the raids tied to the arrests, FBI agents swarmed a warehouse in Miami's Liberty City area, using a blowtorch to take off a metal door. One neighbor said the suspects had been sleeping in the warehouse while running what seemed to be a "military boot camp."

The official told The Associated Press the alleged plotters were mainly Americans with no apparent ties to al-Qaida or other foreign terrorist organizations. He spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to pre-empt news conferences planned for Friday in Washington and Miami.

Miami U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said in a statement that more details about the probe would be released Friday.

"There is no imminent threat to Miami or any other area because of these operations," said Richard Kolko, spokesman for FBI headquarters in Washington. He declined further comment.

FBI Director Robert Mueller, questioned about the case during an appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live," said he couldn't offer many details because "it's an ongoing operation."

"We are conducting a number of arrests and searches" in Miami, Mueller said, which were expected to be wrapped up Friday morning.

Managers of the Sears Tower, the nation's tallest building, said in a statement that they speak regularly with the FBI and local law enforcement about terror threats and that Thursday "was no exception."

"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," the statement said.

Residents living near the warehouse said the men taken into custody described themselves as Muslims and had tried to recruit young people to join their apparently militaristic group.

A man calling himself Brother Corey and claiming to be a member of the group told CNN that the individuals who worship at the building call themselves the "Seas of David."

He dismissed any suggestion that the men were contemplating violence. "We are peaceful," he said. He added that the group studies the Bible and has "soldiers" in Chicago, but is not a terrorist organization.

Residents said FBI agents spent several hours in the neighborhood showing photos of the suspects and seeking information. They said the men, who appeared to be in their teens or 20s, had lived in the area about a year.

The men slept in the warehouse, said Tashawn Rose, 29. "They would come out late at night and exercise. It seemed like a military boot camp that they were working on there. They would come out and stand guard."

She talked to one of the men about a month ago: "They seemed brainwashed. They said they had given their lives to Allah."

Rose said the men tried to recruit her younger brother and nephew for a karate class. "It was weird," she said.

Benjamin Williams, 17, said the group sometimes had young children with them. At times, he added, the men "would cover their faces. Sometimes they would wear things on their heads, like turbans."

Xavier Smith, who attends the nearby United Christian Outreach, said the men would often come by the church and ask for water.

"They were very private," said Smith, 33. "The spoke with like an accent, sort of a Jamaican accent."

The warehouse owner declined comment. "I heard the news just like you guys," George F. Mobassaleh told the AP. "I can't talk to you."

Gov. Jeb Bush was briefed on the situation Thursday, according to his spokeswoman, Alia Faraj.

"We have great confidence in the federal, state and local law enforcement agencies who are committed to keeping our country safe," Faraj said.

She added that there has been greater communication between state and federal agencies since the 2001 terror attacks.

Security at the 110-floor Sears Tower, a Chicago landmark, was ramped up after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the 103rd-floor skydeck was closed for about a month and a half.

A spokesman for Gov. Rod Blagojevich said Illinois officials had been in contact with the FBI about the arrests. He would not comment further, referring additional questions to the FBI.

The FBI's headquarters in Miami sits near a residential neighborhood just east of Interstate 95.

A huge crowd -- up to 250,000 people -- was expected downtown Friday for a parade to honor the NBA champion Miami Heat. Security measures consistent with such an event were in place, city officials said, and the raids were not expected to affect it.

Several terrorism investigations have had south Florida links. Several of the Sept. 11 hijackers lived and trained in the area, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, and several plots by Cuban-Americans against Fidel Castro's government have been based in Miami.

Jose Padilla, a former resident once accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive bomb in the U.S., is charged in Miami with being part of a support cell for Islamic extremists. Padilla's trial is set for this fall.

The BBC's site reports:
The FBI has arrested seven people in the US city of Miami who were planning to blow up Chicago's Sears Tower and other targets, officials say.

The arrests were made in the poor Liberty City area of north Miami, officials said, but no weaponry or bomb-making equipment was found.

The seven, mainly Americans, had no apparent links to international terror.

Reports suggested a US agent may have infiltrated the group by posing as a member of al-Qaeda.

"In the past couple of days, the US government has taken into custody seven people who were conspiring to conduct jihad [holy war] in the United States," one official told the Reuters news agency.

"They thought they were dealing with al-Qaeda," he said, adding that they hoped to buy weapons.

Unconfirmed media reports said that five of those detained were US citizens, and the other two were foreigners, including one Haitian.


Neighbours in the Liberty City area spoke cautiously of the men, who were described as Muslims and apparently slept in a warehouse where they were arrested.

One told the Associated Press that the men ran a "military boot camp" from the building.

"They would come out late at night and exercise. It seemed like a military boot camp they were working on there. They would come out and stand guard," said Tashawn Rose.

"They seemed brainwashed. They said they had given their lives to Allah," she added.


As well as the 435-metre (1,450-foot) Sears Tower, the tallest building in the US, the group were planning to target a federal building in Miami, and some FBI buildings, officials said.

But the seven were not posing any immediate danger, according to the FBI.

"There is no imminent threat to Miami or any other area," said FBI spokesman Richard Kolko.

There were a large number of law enforcement officials involved in the operation, one local businessman told AP.

"There is a ton of guys in uniforms moving around, blocking the streets," said Cedric Thomas.

US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is due to give more details of the raids at a news conference later on Friday.

It will be interesting to see where this leads...

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