MIAMI Seven men plotted to bring down the U.S. government by poisoning saltshakers and bombing landmark buildings, a prosecutor told Miami jurors as their terrorism conspiracy trial opened on Tuesday.
The "Liberty City Seven" aimed to create chaos as part of a holy war to pave the way for al Qaeda-affiliated guerrillas to take over the United States, Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Gregorie said in the prosecution's opening statement.
"We need to make the people go crazy in the streets," Gregorie quoted alleged ringleader Narseal Batiste as saying. "Allah is going to take over through us."
Defense lawyers said the charges were "nonsense" scripted by the government and orchestrated by paid FBI informants they called Conman No. 1 and Conman No. 2.
They said the defendants, one of whom was devoted mainly to smoking marijuana, had no weapons or intent to do violence and that it was the informants who suggested poisoning restaurant saltshakers and blowing up buildings.
The "Liberty City Seven," named for the poor part of Miami where they gathered in a rundown warehouse, were arrested in 2006 on charges of plotting to blow up Chicago's 110-story Sears Tower -- the tallest U.S. skyscraper -- along with several FBI offices and the Miami federal court complex where they are on trial.
The young men face up to 70 years in prison if convicted on all four conspiracy counts in a case government officials have touted as an important victory in the war against terrorism.
But federal agents said when they were arrested that the group's plans were "aspirational rather than operational," and posed no real threat because they had neither al Qaeda contacts nor means of carrying out attacks.
The government's main evidence is drawn from 15,000 audio and videotaped conversations made by the informants. One infiltrated the group and introduced the other, a purported al Qaeda operative from Yemen, as a friend of his uncle.
"Unknown to Mr. Batiste, it's Uncle Sam," Gregorie said.
Batiste's attorney, Ana Jhones, portrayed him as a would-be religious leader who aspired to big things but lacked intellect and ability. He pretended to go along with the informants, she said, because he was trying to con them out of $50,000 to turn the decrepit warehouse into a community gathering place.
"All he wanted to do was get his money and run and who better to con than somebody who was supposedly al Qaeda," Jhones said.
She said the taped conversations would reveal plots "so outrageous they're also incredible," such as Batiste's proposal to march to the White House door and announce, "Here I am."
"It will be entertaining," Jhones told the jurors, who are expected to hear about two months' worth of testimony.
The defendants met at the warehouse, which they called "the temple" or "the embassy," to practice martial arts and study religious texts, but their lawyers scoffed at depictions of them as Islamist extremists.
Defendant Stanley Phanor is a Roman Catholic who eats pork, said his attorney, Roderick Vereen. "You will not see one of these guys say 'Yay Allah, yay jihad, yay holy war,'" Vereen told the jury.