MIAMI — At the opening Tuesday of a federal trial of seven terrorism suspects, jurors were asked to settle a question that has dogged the case since its disclosure 16 months ago:
Did the FBI foil a 2006 plot to bomb Chicago's Sears Tower, or did it finance a fictitious plot to serve as an election-year victory in the war on terrorism?
The seven men from Miami's poorest neighborhood who have been dubbed the Liberty City Seven stand accused of conspiracy to levy war against the United States and to provide material support to Al Qaeda, charges that could send them to prison for 70 years.
During a trial that is expected to last three months, the government plans to present audio and videotaped evidence from an FBI sting operation in which the defendants allegedly discussed bombing the 110-story Chicago landmark and an FBI office in Miami Beach.
The attacks were designed to trigger chaos that would allow the men to take over the country and eventually the world, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Richard Gregorie in his opening statement.
"These defendants came together with the sole purpose of creating a holy war against the United States," Gregorie said of the men, ages 23 to 33. Their plot involved "things as small as poisoning salt shakers in restaurants and as big as blowing up the Sears Tower in Chicago and killing any survivors."
The plots were reportedly hatched by Narseal Batiste, a construction odd-jobs worker and self-styled religious figure who paraded around Liberty City in flowing robes and a head wrap, carrying a shepherd's staff. He called himself a sheik, preached against drugs and domestic violence at a corner park on Sundays and, with the other six defendants, formed a Miami chapter of the Moorish Science Temple, a sect that blends Christianity, Islam and Judaism and claims autonomy from the U.S. government akin to that of Native American tribes.
Batiste's lawyer, Ana Jhones, said her client's only crime was suffering delusions of grandeur. A "wannabe religious leader," he told two informants posing as Al Qaeda liaisons what they wanted to hear to get the $50,000 offered for help in waging attacks against the U.S., she said.
Batiste received $1,000 to pay an unspecified lawyer's fee over the nine-month sting operation. The other six defendants each got a pair of boots.
Federal agents conceded after arresting the men in June 2006 at a dilapidated warehouse they called the Embassy that their alleged mission to attack U.S. targets was "aspirational more than operational."
In opening arguments Tuesday, defense lawyers called the government's accusations ridiculous and invented. They cast their clients as unwitting victims of two veteran "mercenaries" who approached the FBI with claims of having infiltrated a terrorist cell and offered to work undercover to gather evidence through wiretaps and hidden microphones and cameras.
The confidential informants were paid more than $100,000 for their work and expenses, the lawyers said, and conjured up the scenarios to interest the FBI and to entrap the defendants.
The attorneys painted a picture of ignorance and ineptitude among the seven men who were homeless but for the Embassy, a windowless cinder block storage room that lacked running water. They had only two rundown cars, no steady income and a single weapon among them -- a handgun legally registered to defendant Lyglenson Lemorin, who had left it behind when he moved to Atlanta two months before the alleged terrorist cell was busted.
On one of the tapes that will be played for the jury, Batiste reportedly tells the informants that he knows about secret tunnels under the Sears Tower that could be flooded from "Lake Toronto" to maximize the chaos of the attack.
The paid informants made it clear Batiste wouldn't get any money unless he and the others pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda, said Lemorin's attorney, Joel DeFabio. The clandestinely taped ceremony makes clear that Batiste's six friends were baffled by the ritual and only took part in hopes of getting money, the lawyer said.
Allegations of government entrapment have surrounded the case since U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta announced the arrests. In Washington, then-Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales said the capture of the "homegrown terrorists" spared the country another 9/11.
Some observers have said the Bush administration made the arrests to demonstrate its prowess in rooting out terrorists shortly before the November 2006 election.
"There's a political dimension that might have driven a case like this," said Bruce J. Winick, a University of Miami law professor. "The attorney general needed to make a case that he and President Bush and our government were doing a lot to protect the country from terrorism. They could say, 'Here is an example of how we stopped a plot in its tracks.' "
The government needs to be concerned with preventing acts of terrorism, but Winick warned of the danger of encouraging entrapment.
"You need to exercise a lot of judgment in what is a real threat and what isn't. This one doesn't sound very real," he said of the Liberty City Seven. "You have to ask yourself if these men were willing and able to commit terrorism when the opportunity presented itself or if they were a bunch of naive losers."
Other analysts say the government can't afford to risk waiting to see if a group talking about terrorism is serious.
"That these individuals were pledging allegiance to an organization they never visited, to a man they'd never seen, Osama bin Laden -- that's problematic," said Jeffrey F. Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. "Whether they were going to carry out concrete actions is questionable. But it's a double-edged sword for the government. They can't wait to see if these guys back up that rhetoric with real action."