Dan Glaister in Los Angeles
Guardian Unlimited, December 14, 2007
The trial of a group of alleged plotters who prosecutors said wanted to blow up Chicago's 110-storey Sears Tower collapsed yesterday after a jury found one defendant not guilty and failed to reach verdicts on the remaining six. The mistrial represents a setback for the Bush administration in its self-proclaimed war on terror, particularly its intention to crack down on homegrown terrorist suspects.
The jury in Miami found one defendant, Lyglenson Lemorin, not guilty of charges of conspiring to help foreign terrorist organisations including al-Qaida, and conspiring to blow up buildings and overthrow the US government.
Following nine days of deliberation the jury sent a third note to the judge on Thursday saying: "We believe no further progress can be made". After reading it in court, Judge Joan Lenard declared a mistrial. Prosecutors said that they would seek to retrial the six defendants next year, with jury selection set for January 7.
The trial arose from the June 2006 arrests of the seven young men from the rundown Liberty City area of Miami. Prosecutors said the group boasted that it wanted to join al-Qaida on "a mission that would be as good or greater than 9/11".
Based on thousands of hours of audio and video recordings, including one that showed some of the men taking an oath of allegiance to al-Qaida, the government case argued that the group planned to sow chaos by poisoning salt cellars in restaurants and blowing up buildings, and wanted to obtain equipment including machine guns, a rocket launcher, military uniforms and bullet-proof vests.
The young men, who included immigrants from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, faced up to 70 years if convicted.
Defence attorneys dismissed the charges as "nonsense" and said the entire plot was created by FBI informants.
"This was all written, directed and produced by the FBI," said defence attorney Albert Levin. None of the group ever made contact with al-Qaida. Instead, a paid FBI informant known as Brother Mohammed posed as an al-Qaida emissary.
The group's leader, Narseal Batiste, testified that he went along with the informants in order to con them out of $50,000. He wanted the money to establish a base for the Moorish Science Temple group the men belonged to, a sect mixing Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Freemasonry, Gnosticism and Taoism.
Federal agents admitted at the time of the arrests that the group was "aspirational rather than operational". Then attorney general Alberto Gonzales said the prosecution of the group was indicative of the government's intent to hunt down "smaller, more loosely defined cells who are not affiliated with al-Qaida, but who are inspired by a violent jihadist message".