By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
One extorted $7,000 from a friend who raped his girlfriend and then, after accepting the money, beat her up and went to jail.
The other failed an FBI polygraph test while working on an undercover investigation, which one former FBI agent says should have disqualified him from ever working for the government again. Oh, and he was also once charged with roughing up a woman.
And these are supposed to be the good guys.
All of America has heard about the bizarre Liberty City Seven terrorism trial now winding down at the federal courthouse in Miami. It began with the arrest of seven members of an obscure religious sect in June last year. At a nationally televised news conference, then-U.S. Attorney Alberto Gonzalez told the country that the dirt-poor black defendants were prepared to "wage a full ground war on the United States."
It made for a sensational sound bite — and a temporary diversion for the administration, a moment of seeming victory in the war on terror, a fleeting quiet place in the growing public clamor about illegal wiretaps and the growing disaster in Iraq. But FBI brass was a bit more realistic. They cautioned that the ineffectual group was "more aspirational than operational." Today that even seems a bit overstated. Forget about America; this was a ragtag group that couldn't wage a ground war on a jar of peppercorns.
The question at the heart of the farce: Was the group's leader, Narseal "Brother Naz" Batiste, really bent on destroying the Sears Tower in Chicago, or was he simply trying to beat a couple of government informants posing as al Qaeda operatives out of $50,000?
The jury will try to answer that question (and if it chooses guilty, the defendants could be sentenced to 70 years in prison each). But what of those two informants? Who were these guys who posed as al Qaeda jihadi, who acted as America's frontmen in a terror investigation that is now known around the world? What motivated them?
The answer to that question is painfully obvious, and it's the same thing that Batiste says was motivating him: cold cash.
Precious little has been revealed publicly about the informants. Even the jury has been deprived of crucial information about the two informants, thanks in large part to questionable decisions by U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard, who has squelched attempts by the defense to expose the informants' ignominious histories to the jury.
That has led to almost tangible frustration for the defense, including veteran Fort Lauderdale private investigator Rory McMahon, who was hired by Seven attorney Albert Levin to dig up information about the government operatives.
"If I was one of the lawyers, I'd be in jail for contempt right now," says McMahon, a former federal probation officer. "I would be ranting and raving. It's like the judge is saying, 'They're terrorists, so let's throw out the rulebook.'"
A look at what the jury doesn't know — much of which McMahon uncovered — paints a dubious picture of the government's frontmen, beginning with Abbas al-Saidi, a 22-year-old Yemeni operative at the heart of the case. By his own account in court, al-Saidi, who moved to Brooklyn with his family when he was nine years old, began snitching on drug dealers to the New York Police Department when he was just 16.
Although he told the jury he became an informant to do "good," all narcs have ties to the drug world. Otherwise they couldn't be narcs. And al-Saidi has been charged at least twice with marijuana possession and admitted on the stand he smoked pot while participating in the Liberty City Seven investigation.
But al-Saidi didn't just inform on drug dealers he didn't like; he also got involved in terrorism investigations. While he was still a teenager, the NYPD put him up in an apartment and paid him $40 a day for the work.
In 2003 he moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, with his family, where he met a red-haired teen named Stephanie, who would become his long-term girlfriend. They moved into an apartment together in Harlem, where a close friend and business partner of al-Saidi's raped her (which is why her last name has been omitted here). In a move that showed how eager al-Saidi could be to make money by subverting the justice system, he extorted the rapist. In exchange for $7,000 from the friend, he had Stephanie drop the rape charge.
In late 2004, they used the money to move to Miami Beach, where he promptly beat her up. The argument that led to the battery charge began when Stephanie happened upon al-Saidi's wedding photo. Unknown to her, he had married another woman during one of his frequent trips to Yemen (he now has a daughter). He was jailed November 14 on the battery charge and, unable to make bail, was still sitting in jail five weeks later. Desperate, he called his old benefactor, the NYPD, which put him in touch with the FBI. Special Agent John Velazquez, who would work the Liberty City case, visited him in jail and helped secure his release.
Armed with a federal contact, al-Saidi first told the FBI about Brother Naz and his compatriots in September 2005. He met the group at a convenience store where he worked. Al-Saidi told the bureau that Batiste believed he was in al Qaeda and that he thought they might be terrorists. The FBI hired al-Saidi, gave him a recording device, and ultimately paid him about $40,000 for his "work."