Mission: blow up Sears Tower; Sentence: 13 years

November 20, 2009 (CHICAGO) Narseal Batiste, the ringleader of a group of men convicted of plotting to take down Chicago's Sears Tower and bomb FBI offices here and elsewhere, was sentenced to 13 ½ years. Authorities had asked for a much longer sentence for Batiste, who faced a maximum of 70-years in prison from U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard.

Following two mistrials, Batiste and four other men were convicted last May of supporting terrorism, conspiring to wage war on the U.S. and other charges. Two other men were acquitted. All of them, including Batiste, insisted they plotted no terror attacks.

In sentencing Batiste, District Judge Lenard said: "You've done great harm to yourself, your family, the young men who were your followers, and you've violated the trust of your country."

Batiste apologized for the plot in court, saying he had "wanted respect". "I wanted to be this person that I really wasn't. I've never been a violent person" he told the judge.

Batiste, 35, known as "Brother Naz" and "Prince Manna," claimed his Chicago gang membership would allow him to rally an army of "street soldiers."

"I can get 5,000... soldiers in Chicago. So what we need, we need to have the gangs go crazy in the streets, see what I am saying, cause massive confusion," Batiste was heard to say on an FBI tape.

The other four men convicted in the scheme, described as soldiers in the plot, were sentenced earlier this week. They received 7 to 9 years in federal prison-far less than the 30 to 50 years that federal prosecutors had wanted.

Judge Lenard, in sentencing hearings Wednesday and Thursday, said the four were followers who participated far less than ringleader Batiste in discussions about possible terrorist attacks. The conversations were recorded by the FBI using an informant posing as an al Qaeda operative.

The plot never got past discussion, which led defense attorneys and terrorism experts to describe the case as overblown since the ``Liberty City Seven'' were arrested in June 2006. Lenard appeared to share that sentiment in sentencing the underlings.

``As I see this case, these young men were looking for something. I don't know, maybe it was their naiveté and youth that made them fall under the influence of a man with a need to control, and they became his followers,'' Lenard said in sentencing the soldiers.

Batiste, 35, testified at the trials that he faked being a terrorist in the hope of scamming the FBI informant out of $50,000 for his construction business. Prosecutors portrayed him as a leader of a paramilitary sect that did not recognize U.S. government authority, and who hoped to use chaotic attacks on the 110-story Chicago skyscraper to start an anti-U.S. war.

A key piece of evidence was a ceremony led by the informant, and taped by the FBI, in which each man pledged loyalty to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

When federal authorities took down the alleged conspiracy, they claimed to have interrupted a major domestic terrorism plot.

December, 2005: with sounds of the season bleeding onto its hidden camera, it was the FBI, not Santa Claus, coming to town to shoot this covert meeting in a Miami hotel room, a meeting between the government secret agent and Narseal Batiste on the right.

Batiste, once a delivery truck driver on the streets of Chicago, had become the target of a federal domestic terror investigation.

The paid informant was posing as an al Qaeda operative, planted by the feds to bust a suspected home grown terror plot targeting Chicago and other cities across America, including Miami and New York.

"This whole war could be won if we win one city, you know what that city is, Chicago," said Batiste on tape.

Six months later, federal agents stormed a warehouse where Batiste allegedly trained radical followers to carry out attacks on government offices and skyscrapers.

"The Empire State Building and, uh, the Sears Tower. With those two buildings down all radio communication is out," Batiste said on the tape.

Those words were backed up by a promise of firepower, lots of it, including machine guns. And nearby residents fueled speculation that an attack was imminent.

"Whole head wrapped up just the eyes showin' and they were standing guard, one here one there, like soldiers," said one neighbor.

The tapes and testimony of the paid FBI informant were the centerpieces of the federal case against Batiste. They also had photos of potential targets taken by the defendants.

Batiste relatives denied he ever took photos of Sears Tower or FBI buildings and claimed he didn't even own a computer.

Family members said the meetings that took place were religious ceremonies, and the military training was just for self-protection in a dangerous neighborhood.

"I know he don't have the heart to no kill someone or try to attempt to do anything like that," said one defendant's father.

"Americans are the targets because they are Muslims," said M. Cherif Bassiouni, DePaul University told the I-Team during the trial. The terrorism expert was sharply critical of the prosecution and contended the men were entrapped by a suspect informant.

"It's all a part of a bigger political agenda and unfortunately the Department of Justice has fallen prey to it," said Bassiouni.

Bassiouni ridiculed investigators for believing that the accused terrorists were serious when they discussed filling restaurant salt shakers with poison to kill people.

"Man, that would be a hell of a day for America, that's gonna be worse than anthrax," the informant said on tape.

"This idea of a salt shaker is so simplistic, so out of reach in terms of plausibility, if you are speaking to anyone who is involved in anti-terrorism and ask are these people for real, the answer would be these are a bunch of jokers who don't know what they are talking about," said Bassiouni.

The management of the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) has maintained that the plot was just a tall tale. In a 2007 statement to the I-Team, building general manager Thomas Dempsey says: "It's clear in this case that these misguided and ill-equipped defendants never went beyond talk of far-fetched criminal acts. The bottom line is that no imminent threat to Sears Tower ever existed."

Original ABC7 I-Team story on the case

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