Trial and TerrorTrial and Terror
The U.S. government has prosecuted almost 800 people for terrorism since the 9/11 attacks. Most of them never committed an act of violence.
OVER THE LAST 15 years, the U.S. government has quietly released more than 400 people convicted on international terrorism-related charges, according to a data analysis of federal terrorism prosecutions by The Intercept. Some were deported to other countries following their prison terms, but a large number of convicted terrorists are living in the United States. They could be your neighbors.
The release of people convicted on terrorism-related charges with little if any monitoring by law enforcement might suggest U.S. government officials believe they can be fully rehabilitated following minor prison terms. A more likely explanation is that many of these so-called terrorists weren’t particularly dangerous in the first place.
Among them is one of the Herald Square bombers, who plotted to attack the New York subway in 2004. Shahawar Matin Siraj and James Elshafay, egged on by informant Osama Eldawoody, conspired to plant bombs at the Herald Square station. They drew rough plans on napkins, surveilled the station, and discussed how they might acquire explosives. It was all talk. The two alleged bombers took different paths after their arrests. Siraj fought the charges and went to trial, where he was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He won’t be released until 2030. Elshafay pleaded guilty and received a comparably modest sentence of five years in prison and three years of supervised release. He’s been a free man since January 28, 2009.
Or consider the case of Wassim I. Mazloum, who was part of an alleged terror cell in Toledo, Ohio, with Mohammad Zaki Amawi and Marwan Othman El-Hindi. The group’s leader was Darren Griffin, a former U.S. Army Special Forces member who became an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI following a drug arrest. As part of a sting, Griffin trained the three men to use firearms, watched jihadi videos online with them, and conspired with Amawi in a half-baked plot to smuggle laptops from Jordan to Iraq. Mazloum, who was convicted at trial for his role, was released in April 2014.
Others convicted on terrorism-related charges were more blustery than dangerous. Two of the men who operated the website RevolutionMuslim.com — Jesse Curtis Morton and Joseph Cohen — were released. Morton and Cohen (who went by Younus Abdullah Muhammad and Yousef Mohamid Al-Khattab, respectively) were converts to Islam and encouraged violence against various people, including Jewish-American community leaders and the creators of “South Park.” Cohen was released in August 2016. Morton became an FBI informant and was released in February 2015. He was a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, which described him as a “reformed” extremist, until December 2016, when local police in Virginia arrested him for bringing crack cocaine to meet a prostitute. Because the drug and prostitution arrest violated his parole terms, Morton went back to prison — but he’s scheduled to be released again on April 23.
Some of the more than 400 people convicted on terrorism-related charges and freed since 9/11 appear from government evidence to have been involved in genuine plots or to have been connected to dangerous actors. For example, Hassan Abu-Jihaad was a Navy signalman who was convicted at trial of providing material support to Al Qaeda by disclosing the location of the USS Benfold in an online forum. Using coded language, he also provided an FBI informant with information about the movements of U.S. Navy ships. He was released in January 2016.
Still others are quietly reintegrating into society through halfway houses, or “residential re-entry management centers,” in the language of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, for instance, was once in the national spotlight as the co-conspirator of Colleen LaRose, better known by her online moniker, “JihadJane.” LaRose and Paulin-Ramirez were part of a small group that went to Ireland and plotted to murder Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist best known for his drawing of the Prophet Mohammed’s head on the body of a dog. In Ireland, Paulin-Ramirez married Ali Charaf Damache, who was arrested in Spain in December 2015 on a U.S. warrant alleging he was a terrorist recruiter. While Damache was fighting extradition from Spain, Paulin-Ramirez was finishing her prison term in a halfway house in Philadelphia, where she was released on March 21.
IN THE WAR on terror, U.S. District Courts have represented the primary stage of what can fairly be described as national security theater. With a near-perfect record of conviction, the Justice Department since the 9/11 attacks has hauled into court nearly 800 people on terrorism-related charges. While Justice Department and FBI news releases and press conferences heralded the arrests of such defendants, the U.S. government has said precious little about the hundreds of people convicted on terrorism-related charges who have been released back into the United States or deported to their home countries. During the remainder of President Donald Trump’s first term in office, for example, 67 people convicted on terrorism-related charges are scheduled to be released, according to The Intercept’s data analysis.
Those being released today, and the ones who will be released tomorrow, were yesterday examples the U.S. government held up as thwarted enemies caught by newly aggressive counterterrorism agents. One-fourth of those so far released were targets of FBI sting operations, in which an informant or undercover agent, posing as a terrorist operative, provided the means and opportunity for otherwise incapable individuals to move forward in terrorist plots. In congressional testimony, FBI Director James Comey and his predecessor, Robert Mueller, have specifically mentioned foiled plots from sting operations as examples of jobs well done, all part of a larger, ongoing pitch to justify to Congress and the public the more than $3 billion the FBI spends every year on counterterrorism efforts.
The FBI declined to answer specific questions about the release of people convicted on terrorism-related charges and did not provide any information about programs or policies to monitor those who have been released. “The FBI’s mission is to stay ahead of threats to the U.S. and its interests in order to protect the American people and uphold the U.S. Constitution,” FBI spokesperson Carol Cratty said, offering instead a blanket statement. “It is our duty to follow up on information we receive by using all lawful investigative techniques and methods to ensure public safety.”
The so-called Liberty City Seven case is indicative of how the U.S. government plays up the dangers of terrorism defendants when they are arrested but then never acknowledges that such purportedly dangerous individuals are routinely returned to their homes in the United States, in some cases just a few years after their arrests. As in other stings, the defendants in the Liberty City Seven case had no connection to terrorists. An undercover FBI informant, pretending to be an Al Qaeda agent, was the only alleged connection to terrorism. The case, one of the earliest of the FBI’s informant stings, was sloppier than most as well, because much of the bureau’s evidence seemed to support the men’s steadfast assertion that they were street hustlers trying to scam a big-talking Middle Easterner out of his money, not terrorists on the make. In fact, despite the government’s efforts to obfuscate this inconvenient fact, the seven men weren’t even Muslim; they considered themselves members of the Moorish Science Temple, blending together elements of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in their belief system.
“The Liberty City case was a bellwether for the FBI and the Justice Department,” said James J. Wedick, a former FBI supervisory agent who was hired by the defense team to review the evidence. “If they could get convictions based on a thin case like this, they had a green light to be even more aggressive with terrorism stings.”
MIAMI – JUNE 23: Media stands outside the warehouse that the FBI raided last evening June 23, 2006 in the Liberty CIty neighborhood of Miami, Florida. The U.S. Justice Department was expected to provide details of an alleged plot to attack the Chicago Sears Tower, in which at least seven people who were staying in the warehouse were arrested in Miami. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) Members of the media stand outside the warehouse raided by the FBI in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, Florida, June 23, 2006. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
IN 2004, THE brothers Burson and Rothschild Augustin lived in a Miami apartment above Narseal Batiste. Batiste, a former Chicago street preacher, operated a small drywall and construction business and considered himself a student of Western religions, studying the Old Testament, New Testament, and Quran. Inspired by the Guardian Angels he had seen patrolling in Chicago, Batiste also fashioned himself something of a community activist and guardian.
The Augustin brothers joined up with Batiste and, along with a half-dozen others, worked in his drywall business and together rented a warehouse in the Miami neighborhood known as Liberty City, where they offered martial arts training and religious studies to neighborhood kids. They called themselves the “Seas of David” and would sometimes wear military-style uniforms as they marched through the streets. The group was largely Batiste’s personality cult. He described himself as the “divine leader” and suggested once that “man has the authority to, on a certain level, be God.”
A Yemeni man named Abbas al-Saidi ran a convenience store in Miami that Batiste and his guys frequented. Al-Saidi, who had worked as an informant for the New York Police Department, got in touch with the FBI and reported a suspicious group of men from Liberty City, who he claimed had sent him to Yemen to make connections with Al Qaeda. FBI agents turned al-Saidi into a paid informant, and on instructions from the bureau, he introduced Batiste to a second informant, Elie Assaad, who was posing as a representative of Osama bin Laden. Assaad was a seasoned hand for the FBI, having conducted another terrorism sting in South Florida that lured a young man named Imran Mandhai into a bomb plot. (Mandhai was released from prison in March 2015 and deported to Pakistan.)
For Batiste, who is now incarcerated in a low-security facility in Texas, what happened next was nothing more than a street hustle; according to the U.S. government, the interaction between Batiste and Assaad was far more sinister.
“Al-Saidi made it perfectly clear that he was dealing with the police, and if we played the game the way he would lay it out, we’d be able to get a certain amount [of money] and then just basically break off and just go about our business and do all the things that we wanted to do,” Batiste said in a phone interview from prison.
FBI video footage of a meeting between Narseal Batiste and Elie Assaad, an informant posing as a representative of Osama bin Laden.
Batiste and Assaad met in a hotel room to discuss their future together. A hidden FBI video camera recorded their meeting. Following al-Saidi’s advice to dress the part of a Muslim extremist, Batiste wore what appeared to be a turban and carried a walking staff. He looked more like a Halloween partygoer than an Al Qaeda operative. “I’ve never met someone like you,” Batiste confessed to Assaad. “Someone on a mission.” They both sat at a table, where Assaad was eating a room service meal.
“I am a man that is determined. Whether I get any help from you or not, I’m going to do what needs to be done,” Batiste continued in the video, being as vague as possible. “And I’m well on my way of accomplishing that. I’m not far right now.”
“You’re not far? So I’m not wasting my time,” Assaad said, holding a french fry. He then added: “They didn’t bring me from over there just to hear words. I will see some action, or no?”
“Yeah, you’re not wasting your time,” Batiste said. “Absolutely, absolutely.”
MIAMI – JUNE 23: The inside of a warehouse that the FBI raided is viewed through a hole in the door June 23, 2006 in the Liberty CIty neighborhood of Miami, Florida.The US Justice Department was expected to provide details of an alleged plot to attack the Chicago Sears Tower, in which at least seven people who were staying in the warehouse were arrested in Miami. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) Inside the Liberty City warehouse rented by the FBI for Narseal Batiste and his friends, viewed through a hole in the door, June 23, 2006, Miami, Florida. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
BUT THE LIBERTY City Seven plot consisted mainly of words. Assaad kept promising to transfer $25,000 to Batiste, who in turn said what he needed to say to string along Assaad. They talked about a harebrained plot to bomb the Sears Tower in Chicago. Batiste even boasted he could raise an army in Chicago. As time went by and no money arrived from Assaad, however, Batiste and his group became frustrated. So the FBI, through Assaad, rented them a newer, larger warehouse, complete with a refrigerator stocked with food and a new van they could use — all to keep them on the hook and to keep them plotting.
“At that time, we were just thinking, OK, we got the warehouse, and then inside the warehouse, they had food and everything,” Rothschild Augustin remembered. “Like frozen food, fish and stuff. So we were thinking, wow, the money is coming. Then they had a van in there. So we were thinking that all that was ours, so we just kept going along with it.”
The FBI had wired the new warehouse with cameras. Once they were in the warehouse, Assaad asked Batiste and his guys to swear a “bay’at,” or oath of allegiance, to Al Qaeda.
“It was kind of like we got blindsided. We just show up and, ‘Hey, you are going to take this oath.’ What? What oath? Whatever, we just went through it, uncomfortable,” Rothschild Augustin said.
Batiste was still trying to do whatever was necessary to sucker Assaad out of his money. Here was a guy giving them a warehouse, a van, and a promise to provide $25,000. So what if they had to pledge an oath like Boy Scouts? Each of the men stood before Assaad, gave his name, and then pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda. The hustle was finally working, everyone thought.
“The so-called bay’at, oath thing, that was placed upon us — all that was basically acting, just making up stuff,” Batiste recalled.
After the oath, Assaad asked Batiste to do one more thing: take pictures of the FBI office and federal courthouse in Miami. So Batiste and two of the guys gamely drove around Miami taking photographs from their van, with a camera provided by the FBI.
FBI video footage of Elie Assaad administering an oath of allegiance to Al Qaeda.
AT THIS POINT, Batiste’s spiritual adviser, a Chicago preacher named Sultan Khan Bey of the Moorish Science Temple, arrived in Miami and the case transformed into theater of the bizarre. An FBI surveillance vehicle recorded Batiste and his guys picking up Khan Bey and his wife, both dressed in colorful flowing African-inspired garb, from the airport in Fort Lauderdale.
When Batiste explained to Khan Bey what had been happening — the generous Arab guy who gave them a warehouse with a refrigerator full of food in exchange for the oath and taking a few pictures — Khan Bey told the group what should have been obvious all along: They were fools being played by the feds. Khan Bey then held a trial of sorts for Batiste, banished him, and took possession of the warehouse and control of the small group. Another of Batiste’s spiritual advisers, Master G.J.G. Atheea, who unbeknownst to the others had agreed to wear a wire for the FBI, confronted Khan Bey at the warehouse and advocated for Batiste’s return as leader of the group. An argument erupted, and Khan Bey grabbed a gun and shot at Atheea, narrowly missing him.
The gun was legal and registered to Lyglenson Lemorin, a Haitian-born member of the group who had carried it for security detail work in the past. Lemorin had mistakenly left the gun at the warehouse, where Khan Bey found it.
Miami police arrested Khan Bey for the shooting, and federal prosecutors took over the case. Khan Bey cooperated by talking to agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. It wasn’t his first run-in with the law. Khan Bey had been convicted of rape in 1977 and attempted murder in 1973. He pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and received a sentence of 14 months in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release, with the stipulation that his sentence be served at a facility near his home in Chicago.
During the madness in Miami, the group was falling apart. Lemorin, frustrated by Batiste and his ill-conceived scam, moved to Atlanta. Some of the other guys began to distance themselves from Batiste after the oath, believing he’d pushed the hustle too far. Patrick Abraham ignored all the folly around him by focusing on jobs with the drywall company.
IMG_20160515_192731-1492629195 Patrick Abraham now lives in Haiti, where he teaches English at a school in Port-au-Prince. Photo: Trevor Aaronson
ON JUNE 22, 2006, Abraham was driving to a worksite when he saw a Chevrolet Suburban accelerate past his van and then quickly stop in front of him. “I see people come out of everywhere and pull out guns, aiming at my window,” Abraham remembered. After the FBI agents rushed the car, one asked Abraham a question that perplexed him: “Do you have a bomb in the car?”
“What?” Abraham asked, confused.
“Do you have a bomb in the car?” the agent repeated.
Abraham shook his head, exasperated. “Go ahead with the bullshit, man,” Abraham said, giving the agents permission to search his vehicle.
The others were arrested in similarly dramatic ways. Seven agents, for example, arrested Rothschild Augustin while he was shopping for clothes.
After their arrests, the FBI brought each of the Liberty City Seven individually into interrogation rooms at the bureau’s Miami office. Stanley Phanor, one of the guys who had remained loyal to Batiste throughout, didn’t understand why he had been arrested when he wound up in an interrogation room. A slender, soft-spoken man of Haitian descent, Phanor had gone by the nickname Sonny since he was a child. In the indictment, prosecutors listed him as “Brother Sunni,” perhaps as a way of making him seem more menacing and Islamic.
None of the men accepted a plea deal, and they all stood trial together. The case was bullshit, they agreed. The first trial resulted in a hung jury for six of the seven defendants. Because he’d abandoned the group during the sting, Lemorin was acquitted — but was immediately detained by immigration officials for deportation.
“On the one hand, they just seemed like a hapless group of guys and their defense all along was that they were just going along with it because they were going to rip off [the FBI informant],” said Jeffrey Agron, who was the jury foreman. “There were a fair number of people on the jury who believed that it was a scam. … On the other hand, when asked to pledge an allegiance to Al Qaeda, they did it. When asked to take pictures for the plot, they did take the pictures.”
Family members of some of the seven men charged with plotting to destroy the Sears Tower in Chicago and other buildings, center left in white t-shirts, look on during a news conference where activists spoke, Thursday, June 29, 2006 at the Liberty City neighborhood warehouse in Miami where the FBI arrested most of the men. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) Family members of the Liberty City Seven look on during a news conference on June 29, 2006, at the warehouse in Miami where the FBI arrested most of the men. Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP
IT TOOK THREE trials to convict five of the seven men. While Lemorin was acquitted in the first trial, Naudimar Herrera, a bit player in the group, was acquitted following the third trial. But five others — Narseal Batiste, Patrick Abraham, Stanley Phanor, Burson Augustin, and Rothschild Augustin — were convicted of conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization, among other charges, and sent to prison. Following their convictions, Jeffrey Sloman, who was then the acting U.S. attorney in Miami, said the prosecution “helped make our community safer by rooting out nascent terrorists before they could carry out their threats.” The convicted men received sentences ranging from six to 13 years. If the Justice Department thought the men were dangerous, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons seemed to disagree. The Liberty City Seven members were incarcerated in medium and minimum security facilities once in BOP custody. The FBI paid Assaad $85,000 and al-Saidi $21,000 for their work on the sting.
Burson Augustin was the first of the convicted Liberty City Seven defendants to be released, on September 21, 2012, after serving six years in prison. Instead of returning to Miami, he chose to move to Fort Myers, where he had an aunt and where no one else knew him. “I thought my best bet is to go to a place I don’t know,” Augustin said. “To get a fresh start.”
A well-built man who wears thick dreadlocks pulled back into a ponytail, Augustin tried to make an honest living in Fort Myers, but he found it impossible to land a job with a terrorism conviction on his record. So Augustin went back to his old trade, hustling, and was soon busted for dealing cocaine. Because he was on supervised release at the time of the drug deal, his case went to federal court and he was sentenced to another four years in prison.
Lemorin, a Haitian national who had fathered two children in Miami, fell victim to a unique kind of double jeopardy. After being acquitted in the first trial, the evidence from that trial was used against him in immigration court. It proved enough to justify his deportation order.
His deportation was delayed because of the 2010 earthquake, which devastated Haiti. But one year after the earthquake, with the island still recovering from the destruction, Lemorin was on one of the first deportee planes to Port-au-Prince. In some ways, despite being acquitted, his punishment was in line with that of the other defendants: Between the time he was in a holding cell awaiting trial and his time in an immigration detention center, Lemorin spent nearly six years behind bars.
When he arrived in Haiti, he found himself detained yet again. Not knowing who among the deportees was a violent criminal and who wasn’t, Haitian officials threw everyone into detention cells. Those whose families had money could offer bribes to get loved ones released. The ones without family or means were at the mercy of Haitian officials in a filthy prison where cholera was spreading and some detainees had already died.
“There’s feces everywhere,” Lemorin remembered. “Feces on the wall, feces on everything, feces on the place where you take a shower.”
When Lemorin finally got out of detention, his relatives in Leogane gave him a small plot of land on which to live. His mother in Miami collected old cellphones and other electronics and shipped them to Lemorin, who sold them to buy the concrete and rebar to build his new home. He only has walls around the bedroom, but the foundation is laid. In time, he hopes to build up the walls around a small living room and kitchen.
In the United States, he was not only forced to leave behind his mother, but also his son and daughter. In April 2011, Lemorin learned that his 15-year-old son, Lukenson Lemorin, had been killed in a car accident in Miami. U.S. authorities denied Lemorin’s visa application to attend the funeral, he said, and he was forced to observe the service through a grainy Skype connection.
“I got robbed of my son’s life because I beat the case,” Lemorin said, tears welling in his eyes. “Twelve jurors found me not guilty. … And when I’m supposed to be home with my son, I’m in Haiti, deported, sent back for the same trial I beat.”
Two years after arriving in Haiti, Lemorin learned that his old friend Patrick Abraham had also been deported. Patrick had only distant relatives to help him in Haiti. But he had Lemorin, who offered to share his one-room home. On a recent evening, Abraham brought home a watermelon from Port-au-Prince. They sliced up and ate the watermelon together as they watched the kids from the village playing soccer with a deflated ball. Impoverished and isolated from the rest of the world, the pair seemed the world’s least probable terrorists.
For his part, Lemorin isn’t bitter about his circumstances. He doesn’t blame the United States. “I love America,” he said. “America is a great country. But what happened to us, it’s not America that did it. It’s not America — it’s a few people in America that others put their trust in.”
IMG_20160512_153116-1492629193 Burson Augustin is now back in South Florida, where he is trying to rebuild his life after serving a decade in prison. Photo: Trevor Aaronson
ABOUT 700 MILES away, in Miami, the rest of the Liberty City Seven are mostly together. Burson and Rothschild Augustin live in a small studio apartment in Broward County, north of Miami. Burson landed a job as a valet on Miami Beach; these days, having learned from his experience in Fort Myers, when he fills out job applications, he just leaves the question about felony convictions blank. It’s best not to try to explain. Rothschild has bounced from job to job; he’s done stints sewing body armor in a factory in an industrial part of town and working in a juice bar in a trendy section of Miami.
Stanley Phanor was released on June 28, 2016, after a short stay at a halfway house. He’s living with his mother in Little Haiti, where Burson and Rothschild Augustin sometimes visit. If the FBI is at all concerned with members of an alleged terror cell associating again in the city of their crime, the three are unaware of it. The Bureau of Prisons does not treat the release of people convicted on terrorism-related charges any differently than that of other criminals, and the FBI does not have a program to track and monitor released terrorists, at least not that it has acknowledged publicly. Phanor and the Augustin brothers haven’t been prohibited from seeing each other, and none of them have seen anything to suggest they are under physical surveillance. As far as they can tell, no one is paying any attention to them at all.
They’ll have a new addition soon. The Liberty City Seven’s alleged ringleader, Narseal Batiste, will be released to a halfway house this summer, a little more than a decade after he purportedly tried to wage a ground war against the U.S. government.
April 20 2017, 7:12 p.m.