A dubious legacy of 9/11: New documentary makes case that Liberty City 7 were ‘railroaded’
MIAMI — A few years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a group of mostly young Black men of kindred spirit found themselves hanging out together in the Miami area.
They scraped by as construction workers, exercised at local gyms, and enjoyed weekend picnics with family and friends. They also refurbished a warehouse known as the “Embassy” in the impoverished Liberty City section of Miami, where they practiced their own brand of religion that mixed Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
The seven men viewed themselves as “guardian angels” and wore urban-style uniforms.
“They were long days of hard work,” said Stanley “Sunny” Phanor, one of the men in the group. “We really thought we were making a difference.”
But in the summer of 2006, Phanor and other members of the group that would come to be known as the “Liberty City 7” were arrested by federal agents on charges of conspiring to provide “material support” to al-Qaida, the Islamic extremist network — though not in connection with the 9/11 jetliner attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
With much fanfare, top Justice Department and FBI officials in Washington, along with their counterparts in South Florida, accused the seven men of planning a jihad in the name of al-Qaida to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago and FBI buildings in the Miami area and other cities.
Then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said at a news conference that the alleged homegrown terror cell had pledged allegiance to al-Qaida, and he quoted the men as saying they wished to carry out a “‘full ground war’” against the United States, to “‘kill all the devils we can,’” and to make their attacks “‘just as good or greater than 9/11.’”
But the case of the Liberty City 7 — as captured in a new PBS Frontline documentary titled “In the Shadow of 9/11” — came to be seen by many in and outside the justice system as government overreach during an era of post-9/11 paranoia about preventing the next terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
At that same news conference after the arrests in June 2006, Deputy FBI Director John Pistole described the plans of the seven alleged terrorists as more “aspirational than operational.”
His comment, meant to avoid hyping the alleged threat to America’s security, would turn out to be an epic understatement. The public would learn over the course of three difficult federal trials in Miami that — despite some of their militant statements — the Liberty City 7 were not actual members of al-Qaida and not even Muslims. They didn’t possess weapons or bombs, and had no real plan to destroy the world’s tallest building at the time. They seemed mainly interested in squeezing thousands of dollars out of a confidential informant who posed as an al-Qaida representative while luring the seven inner-city men into an elaborate FBI sting operation.
It was that complicated and troubling narrative in the post-9/11 era that drew veteran British filmmaker Dan Reed to the Liberty City 7 case as a documentary project in 2014. He personally financed the documentary, calling it a “labor of love,” and sold it last year to PBS Frontline.
“I found myself thinking, ‘What is America doing to stop the next atrocity?’“ Reed told the Miami Herald. “In this case, they went after innocent people with no connection to al-Qaida. The Liberty City 7 seemed to be a watershed case.”
“The defendants didn’t cut a deal, so you have this extraordinary record of an undercover sting operation,” Reed said. “From the beginning to the end of the case, the defendants kept insisting on their innocence.”
In the end — after three trials because of deadlocked juries in the first two proceedings — two of the men were acquitted and five were convicted.
Those acquitted were Lyglenson Lemorin, who was deported to Haiti because he was not a U.S. citizen, and Naudimar Herrera, who still lives in Miami.
In late 2009, U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard sentenced Narseal Batiste, the ringleader, to 13 1/2 years; his self-described “No. 1 soldier,” Patrick Abraham to nine years; Stanley Phanor to eight years; Burson Augustin to six years, and Rothschild Augustine to seven years. Federal prosecutors had asked for 30 to 50 years in prison for each defendant. But Lenard said a terrorism enhancement that would allow for harsher sentences in each case would result in unreasonably long terms.
Their defense attorneys called the prosecution of the Liberty City 7 an overblown case of FBI entrapment.
“They didn’t have the manner and means, they had no money, they barely had vehicles … and they certainly didn’t have bombs,” said Miami attorney Albert Levin in the PBS documentary. He represented Patrick Abraham, who was deported to Haiti after completing his prison sentence. “It was just a complete ... setup by the government. The plot was being moved forward by the informants and the FBI.”
Even a key senior counterterrorism official who defended the use of sting operations as a law enforcement tool said that it’s critical not to overstate threats because the public could lose trust in the system.
“This is a cautionary tale. … Be careful as to how far your undercover agents or your informants push,” Michael Mullaney, chief of the counter-terrorism section of the Department of Justice from 2006 through 2019, said in the PBS documentary. “The goal is not to take somebody that is not a terrorist and make them a terrorist.”
Phanor, who grew up in Little Haiti and attended St. Mary’s Cathedral School and Miami Edison Senior High School, said he never understood why the FBI targeted him and his colleagues because they showed no signs of being “radicalized” or disposed to commit an act of terrorism. He said the seven men were just trying to grow a construction business and do good in the community by fighting poverty, drugs and violence.
“We’re Americans. We just wanted to change the system,” Phanor, 46, who lives in Miami and does construction work for a living, told the Miami Herald. “What they were trying to get us to do was so far from reality. ... They could see from the beginning that we were not the type of people who would kill and blow up buildings. We were not radicalized. So, why were they picking on us?”
Here’s why: Prosecutors maintained at the three trials that the FBI pursued the sting operation to test whether the group, led by Batiste, posed an actual threat to national security. A former special agent in charge of the Miami field office said the investigation “disrupted a terrorist threat” — a prime example of the post-9/11 law enforcement strategy of stopping plots early on, before anyone is killed.
“Some of the things that fell through the gap allowed 9/11 to happen,” Anthony Velazquez, former acting supervisory special agent with the FBI in Miami, said in the PBS documentary. “We could not allow for anything like that to fall through a gap again.”
But was the threat real — or created whole cloth by the FBI and its informants?
Initially, a New York transplant who worked as a clerk in a North Miami convenience store came to know Batiste and his associates and tipped off the FBI about their alleged extremist plan. The informant said the men created a Moorish temple at the warehouse in Liberty City and were conducting military drills and talking about overthrowing the U.S. government, the informant said. Originally from Yemen, he also said they wanted to meet al-Qaida and that he had connections in the Middle East and could help get them money.
The FBI had to bring in a second informant with more stature to approach Batiste and his crew. The informant, a Lebanese man of Syrian descent by the name of Elie Assad, posed as an al-Qaida financier and initially met Batiste at a local hotel and promised him support. Batiste, who wore a white turban and carried a staff to the meeting, wrote out a list: uniforms, combat boots, machine guns, radios and vehicles. The encounter was videotaped by the FBI.
In a series of follow-up meetings, Batiste did almost all of the talking. He tried to persuade Assad to give the group $50,000 for its social and religious efforts in Liberty City. The turning point in the case came in March 2006, when the FBI directed the informant to ask Batiste if his crew would say a loyalty oath to al-Qaida.
Batiste asked him and the others to meet at another warehouse in the Lemon City section of Miami, which was provided by the informant. It was bugged by the FBI.
The purported purpose of the meeting: to say prayers.
But when the group showed up, Batiste and Assad “surprised” them with the idea of taking the pledge to al-Qaida. Afterward, the men questioned Batiste about what was going on. He assured them that the pledge was a “charade” to get money from Assad, who ultimately gave them $3,500.
Afterward, Batiste and some of the other members of the group took surveillance photos of targeted buildings around the federal courthouse in Miami.
But the men said they didn’t take the informant posing as an al-Qaida financier seriously.
“We all wondered, ‘Who is this guy?’ “ Rothschild Augustine, who grew up with his brother, Burson, in a Haitian family in North Miami, told the Herald. “We didn’t care about his big plans. We didn’t want to do what he wanted us to do. We just wanted his money.”
But for the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office, the men’s recorded oath to al-Qaida and surveillance photos of targeted buildings provided ample evidence to file terror conspiracy charges against the Liberty City 7.
“A conversation is an act,” former Miami federal prosecutor Jacqueline Arango said in the PBS FRONTLINE documentary. “So, you don’t need to pick up a gun or let off a bomb or make a bomb for it to be an overt act.”
Narseal Batiste said he could not comment for this story, but his daughter, Narcassia, told the Herald that she was only 11 years old when her father and some of the others in his group were arrested at a construction job site in the Miami area.
““They shut down the whole block,” recalled Narcassia, who was with her mother at the site. “They told us to get on the ground. They were holding assault rifles and pointing them right at us. … I thought I was in a scene out of GI Joe. It was unreal. I saw them take away my dad in handcuffs. I didn’t know where they were taking him.”
“From that point on our lives were destroyed,” said Narcassia, one of Batiste’s four grown children.
After their arrests, Batiste and other members of the group were taken to the FBI’s office for questioning.
Rothschild Augustine and Phanor said they couldn’t believe the feds, who found a Samurai sword, machetes, martial arts equipment and holy books in the group’s Liberty City warehouse, were accusing the seven men of being terrorists. They thought it was all a joke, but the FBI agents and prosecutors were dead serious. They said the authorities pressured them to plead guilty and cooperate, but they refused.
“We were railroaded,” said Augustine, 37, lamenting that he lost his 20s in prison. He now lives in Hollywood, where he installs security cameras to make ends meet. “The reason we fought is because we had no options and we were not terrorists.”
“It was wrong what happened to me and the other guys,” he said. “We felt like we were made into scapegoats, and the real terrorists were still out there.”
Phanor, 46, said he lost his 30s in prison. “It’s not something I can ever get back,” he said.
“I’m terrified of people even knowing my name,” said Phanor, who has made a living in the construction trade. “I’m a pariah. I don’t even want people to know my name.
“Why did this happen to us?”