Seven arrested over 'plot to blow up Sears Tower'

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The Independent US

The American authorities have uncovered what they claim is a plot by seven homegrown terrorists to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago and a federal building in Miami as part of an al-Qa'ida-inspired mission to "wage war against the United States government".

The seven men - five American citizens along with two Haitians, one in the US legally, the other illegally - were arrested yesterday and on Thursday, at a Miami warehouse and in Atlanta, Georgia.

"They were persons who for whatever reason came to view their home country as the enemy," Alberto Gonzales, the US Attorney General, said.

According to the indictment made public yesterday, the seven, aged from 22 to 32, had taken an oath of allegiance to al-Qa'ida and had sought help from the terrorist organisation headed by Osama bin Laden. They were discovered when they approached someone they believed was an al-Qa'ida operative, but who was a federal undercover informant.

The ringleader of the group was named as Narseal Batiste, who from November 2005 recruited and trained the others for a series of attacks, including one on the 103-storey Sears Tower, the tallest building in the US. All the accused were black men. The Miami residents came from one of the poorest parts of the city.

On several occasions in December last year, the indictment said, Mr Batiste met a person claiming to be a member of al-Qa'ida, and asked for boots, uniforms, machine guns and radios, as well as $50,000 (£27,500) in cash. The aim was to create an "Islamic army to wage jihad" against the US. Mr Batiste apparently said he would send his "soldiers" to blow up the Sears tower, as well as the FBI building in North Miami Beach.

In fact, according to Mr Gonzales, "the individual they thought was a member of al-Qa'ida was in actuality working with the South Florida Terrorism Task Force". This person was told by Mr Batiste that the newly formed group wanted to "kill all the devils we can", in a mission that would be "just as good or greater than 9/11".

The plot appears to have been nipped in the bud, and US officials stressed there was no imminent threat. But the affair has kindled fresh alarm here that the main domestic terrorist threat to the US lies not in sleeper cells of foreign al-Qa'ida operatives, but with US-born radicals.

"The convergence of globalisation and technology has created a new brand of terrorism," Mr Gonzales said. This new brand is increasingly decentralised, amorphous and - as in the case of the attacks in London in July 2005 - involving not foreigners but citizens of the country where the attack took place. "Left unchecked," Mr Gonzales added, "these homegrown terrorists may prove to be as dangerous as al-Qa'ida."

The arrest also follow the unmasking of a terrorist plot in Toronto last month, in which Canadian security forces arrested 17 people accused of planning attacks against targets in Ontario province. They had stockpiled three times more explosive than was used in the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people in April 1995, the deadliest incident yet of homegrown terrorismin the US.

"These extremists are self-recruited, self-trained and self-executing," Robert Mueller, the FBI's director, said in a speech in Cleveland. "They operate under the radar screen, often it starts with individuals who are frustrated and dissatisfied." It was unclear last night just how serious the threat was. In Chicago, for workers at the Sears building, it was business as usual, while relatives of those arrested were incredulous that the men could be involved in such an enterprise.

"This boy he's not a violent boy, he never got into trouble," said Joseph Phanor, the father of Stanley Gerant Phanor, one of the accused. He said he didn't believe "anything they say about" his son's alleged involvement in a terrorist plot.