Seven men accused of trying to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago with help from al-Qaeda never actually made contact with the terrorist network and were instead caught in an FBI sting involving an informant who posed as an al-Qaeda operative, authorities said.
Federal prosecutors said the men -- who operated out of a warehouse in Miami's blighted Liberty City section -- took an oath to al-Qaeda and plotted to create an "Islamic Army" bent on violence against the US. Five of those arrested are US citizens.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales stressed that there was no immediate threat in either Chicago or Miami because the group did not have the explosives or other materials it was seeking.
"This group was more aspirational than operational," FBI Deputy Director John Pistole said.
Nevertheless, Gonzales said Thursday's arrests underscored the danger of "homegrown terrorists" who "view their home country as the enemy."
Those arrested ranged in age from 22 to 32 and included a legal immigrant from Haiti and a Haitian who was in this country illegally. Investigators said all members of the alleged plot were in custody on conspiracy charges.
"We are confident that we have identified every individual who had the intent of posing a threat to the US," said R. Alexander Acosta, US attorney in Miami.
Five of the defendants, including alleged ringleader Narseal Batiste, appeared in federal court in Miami on Friday under heavy security. They were brought in and out in single file, chained together at the wrists and wearing ankle chains.
"It's an example of the philosophy of prevention. These arrests were made during the talking stage, long before any bomb-making stage," said Kendall Coffey, a former US attorney in Florida. "While they may be seen as bungling wannabes, they are potentially dangerous wannabes who, based on the allegations, were pursuing extremely dangerous plans."
Joseph Phanor, the father of defendant Stanley Grant Phanor, said he did not believe "anything they say about" his son.
Officials at the 110-floor Sears Tower said in a statement: "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."
A Sears Tower representative said that it was "business as usual" at the building on Friday.
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