The bureau also brought in Elie Assaad, a seasoned informant originally from Lebanon. He told Mandhai that he was an associate of Osama bin Laden tasked with establishing a training camp in the United States. Gilbert suggested attacking electrical substations in South Florida, and Assaad offered to provide a weapon. FBI agents then arrested Mandhai; he pleaded guilty in federal court and was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison. It was a model of what would become the bureau's primary counterterrorism M.O.—identifying a target, offering a plot, and then pouncing.
"These guys were homeless types," one former FBI official says about the alleged Sears Tower plotters. "And yes, we did show a picture where somebody was taking the oath to Al Qaeda. So what?" Illustration: Jeffrey SmithGilbert himself didn't get to bask in his glory; he never worked for the FBI again and died in 2004. Assaad, for his part, ran into some trouble when his pregnant wife called 911. She said Assaad had beaten and choked her to the point that she became afraid for her unborn baby; he was arrested, but in the end his wife refused to press charges.
The jail stint didn't keep Assaad from working for the FBI on what would turn out to be perhaps the most high-profile terrorism bust of the post-9/11 era. In 2005, the bureau got a tip from an informant about a group of alleged terrorists in Miami's Liberty City neighborhood. The targets were seven men—some African American, others Haitian—who called themselves the "Seas of David" and ascribed to religious beliefs that blended Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The men were martial-arts enthusiasts who operated out of a dilapidated warehouse, where they also taught classes for local kids. The Seas of David's leader was Narseal Batiste, the son of a Louisiana preacher, father of four, and a former Guardian Angel.
In response to the informant's tip, the FBI had him wear a wire during meetings with the men, but he wasn't able to engage them in conversations about terrorist plots. So he introduced the group to Assaad, now playing an Al Qaeda operative. At the informant's request, Batiste took photographs of the FBI office in North Miami Beach and was caught on tape discussing a notion to bomb the Sears Tower in Chicago. Assaad led Batiste, and later the other men, in swearing an oath to Al Qaeda, though the ceremony (recorded and entered into evidence at trial) bore a certain "Who's on First?" flavor:
"God's pledge is upon me, and so is his compact," Assaad said as he and Batiste sat in his car. "Repeat after me."
"Okay. Allah's pledge is upon you."
"No, you have to repeat exactly. God's pledge is upon me, and so is his compact. You have to repeat."
Ultimately, the undercover recordings suggest that Batiste was mostly trying to shake down his "terrorist" friend.
"Well, I can't say Allah?" Batiste asked.
"Yeah, but this is an English version because Allah, you can say whatever you want, but—"
"Okay. Of course."
"Allah's pledge is upon me. And so is his compact," Batiste said, adding: "That means his angels, right?"
"Uh, huh. To commit myself," Assaad continued.
"To commit myself."
"Brother," Batiste repeated.
"Uh. That's, uh, what's your, uh, what's your name, brother?"
"Ah, Brother Naz."
"Okay. To commit myself," the informant repeated.
"To commit myself."
"You're not—you have to say your name!" Assaad cried.
"Uh. To commit myself. I am Brother Naz. You can say, 'To commit myself.'"
"To commit myself, Brother Naz."
Things went smoothly until Assaad got to a reference to being "protective of the secrecy of the oath and to the directive of Al Qaeda."
Here Batiste stopped. "And to...what is the directive of?"
"Directive of Al Qaeda," the informant answered.
"So now let me ask you this part here. That means that Al Qaeda will be over us?"
"No, no, no, no, no," Assaad said. "It's an alliance."
"Oh. Well..." Batiste said, sounding resigned.
"It's an alliance, but it's like a commitment, by, uh, like, we respect your rules. You respect our rules," Assaad explained.
"Uh, huh," Batiste mumbled.
"And to the directive of Al Qaeda," Assaad said, waiting for Batiste to repeat.
"Okay, can I say an alliance?" Batiste asked. "And to the alliance of Al Qaeda?"
"Of the alliance, of the directive—" Assaad said, catching himself. "You know what you can say? And to the directive and the alliance of Al Qaeda."
"Okay, directive and alliance of Al Qaeda," Batiste said.
"Okay," the informant said. "Now officially you have commitment and we have alliance between each other. And welcome, Brother Naz, to Al Qaeda."
Or not. Ultimately, the undercover recordings made by Assaad suggest that Batiste, who had a failing drywall business and had trouble making the rent for the warehouse, was mostly trying to shake down his "terrorist" friend. After first asking the informant for $50,000, Batiste is recorded in conversation after conversation asking how soon he'll have the cash.
"Let me ask you a question," he says in one exchange. "Once I give you an account number, how long do you think it's gonna take to get me something in?"
"So you is scratching my back, [I'm] scratching your back—we're like this," Assaad dodged.
"Right," Batiste said.
"When we put forth a case like that to suggest to the American public that we're protecting them, we're not protecting them. The agents back in the bullpen, they know it's not true."
The money never materialized. Neither did any specific terrorist plot. Nevertheless, federal prosecutors charged (PDF) Batiste and his cohorts—whom the media dubbed the Liberty City Seven—with conspiracy to support terrorism, destroy buildings, and levy war against the US government. Perhaps the key piece of evidence was the video of Assaad's Al Qaeda "oath." Assaad was reportedly paid $85,000 for his work on the case; the other informant got $21,000.
James J. Wedick, a former FBI agent, was hired to review the Liberty City case as a consultant for the defense. In his opinion, the informant simply picked low-hanging fruit. "These guys couldn't find their way down the end of the street," Wedick says. "They were homeless types. And, yes, we did show a picture where somebody was taking the oath to Al Qaeda. So what? They didn't care. They only cared about the money. When we put forth a case like that to suggest to the American public that we're protecting them, we're not protecting them. The agents back in the bullpen, they know it's not true."
Indeed, the Department of Justice had a difficult time winning convictions in the Liberty City case. In three separate trials, juries deadlocked on most of the charges, eventually acquitting one of the defendants (charges against another were dropped) and convicting five of crimes that landed them in prison for between 7 to 13 years. When it was all over, Assaad told ABC News' Brian Ross that he had a special sense for terrorists: "God gave me a certain gift."
But he didn't have a gift for sensing trouble. After the Liberty City case, Assaad moved on to Texas and founded a low-rent modeling agency. In March, when police tried to pull him over, he led them in a chase through El Paso (with his female passenger jumping out at one point), hit a cop with his car, and ended up rolling his SUV on the freeway. Reached by phone, Assaad declined to comment. He's saving his story, he says, for a book he's pitching to publishers.