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New Doc Looks At How Real The Liberty City Seven's Threat Actually Was

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the years after 9/11, you could always tell when the Justice Department wanted people to think an arrest was a big deal; like in 2006, when the attorney general himself, Alberto Gonzales, announced a case out of Liberty City, a neighborhood in northern Miami. Seven men were arrested and charged with plotting to blow up the Sears Tower.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALBERTO GONZALES: And left unchecked, these homegrown terrorists may prove to be as dangerous as groups like al-Qaida.

SHAPIRO: The FBI director at the time, Robert Mueller, talked about it on "Larry King Live."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LARRY KING LIVE")

ROBERT MUELLER: In Miami, we are conducting a number of arrests and searches.

LARRY KING: Big concern?

MUELLER: Whenever we undertake an operation like this, we would not do it without the approval of a judge. We've got search warrants and arrest warrants and the like. And so, yes, it's a concern.

SHAPIRO: But how real was the threat from the Liberty City Seven, as they were known? A new documentary for "Frontline" digs into that question. The film is called "In The Shadow Of 9/11," and the director, Dan Reed, joins us now.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DAN REED: Thank you. It's great to be on the show again.

SHAPIRO: The backdrop to this story is a shift in the FBI's priorities after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Describe what that shift was.

REED: Well, the shift really was triggered by President Bush the day after 9/11 turning to the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, and saying, yeah, I understand you're investigating the attack that happened yesterday, but what I really want to know is what you're doing to prevent the next one. And this marks a pivot in the FBI's function, where it goes from being entirely a crime-fighting organization to becoming a counterterrorism and domestic intelligence agency. And it's a role it wasn't really prepared for.

SHAPIRO: And so there's this one vivid moment in the film where a former undercover agent says - and I'm paraphrasing here - before 9/11, if you told the bosses that you'd identified a potential terrorism cell, the bosses would say, OK, which terrorist group? What's the target? What are their plots? How many weapons do they have? And if the agent replied, well, they don't belong to any group or have a plot or have weapons, then the bosses would say, get out of here.

REED: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: How did that change post 9/11?

REED: Yeah, the bosses would say you need counselling, so, you know...

SHAPIRO: Right, that was his line.

REED: Yeah. The madness becomes - after 9/11 becomes the method. And what changed was, obviously, America's engulfed by fear. The FBI is tasked with making America safe, with finding the sleeper cells, finding the next al-Qaida terrorists with a 9/11-scale plan. And they really didn't know how to go about this. So one of the methods they used was sting operations adapted really from the war on drugs. This essentially involved kind of pre-criming (ph) people who were, quote, unquote, "likely terrorists."

The Liberty City Seven saga is really the first major counterterrorism sting by the FBI that became highly visible because the people who were arrested, the defendants, chose to go to trial. They didn't accept a plea deal. They didn't plead guilty. They didn't settle the case. They wanted to go to trial because they thought they were innocent.

SHAPIRO: So that case, the Liberty City Seven counterterrorism sting operation, is at the heart of this film. Tell us about who these seven guys were. I mean, up until this sting operation started, they were not people you would ever describe as terrorists.

REED: They were not. They were seven very young men in their early 20s. They were not, you know, part of any dangerous group within Liberty City. On the contrary, they got together to teach kids martial arts. They had their own kind of spiritual philosophy, which was a mashup of mainly Christianity with a bit of Judaism, a bit of Islam thrown in - you know, a little group minding their own business within this very crime-ridden community of Liberty City at the time.

What made them kind of special was that the main guy in the group, a guy called Narseal Batiste, was the son of a couple of Christian preachers. His mom and dad were Baptist preachers. And he kind of fancied himself as a bit of a kind of messianic figure. He walked around in biblical kind of robes and carried a staff. And he's at the center of this extraordinary story. But these were just - yeah, these seven guys - and they had a construction company together, and it wasn't going well.

SHAPIRO: It's absolutely accurate to say these guys had shown no previous interest in committing terrorist acts. But as the man who oversaw the FBI investigation points out, they had a million different off ramps. There were so many moments they could have said, actually, we're not going to pledge loyalty to al-Qaida. Actually, we're not going to film potential targets. But instead of walking away, they went deeper and deeper. And, you know, they vividly describe blowing up the Sears Tower. And so the FBI argues law enforcement can't just walk away from that. What do you make of that argument?

REED: I think that, you know, four years after 9/11, it was very difficult for law enforcement to say, well, you know what? These guys aren't really dangerous, and they're not really going to do the things that they are recorded telling our informants that they're going to do. I think the missing piece in this, what's motivating in particular Narseal Batiste, the leader, is $50,000. Their business is going badly. They want to scam this Arab kind of financier slash terrorist.

SHAPIRO: The informant who they think is an al-Qaida member is...

REED: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: ...Promising to pay them $50,000. And they're saying, oh, we can scam this guy out of $50,000 by claiming to have a plan to blow up the Sears Tower.

REED: Exactly. You can see the extraordinary scenes in the film that are - that were videotaped by the FBI covertly where Batiste comes out with all this kind of bizarre - you know, describing scenarios from movies and just saying all sorts of stuff to please the FBI informant and like, you know, OK, I've told you about my terrorist plot. Can I have the money now?

What was difficult for the jury to imagine was that these men, they had no inkling that they might be the targets of an FBI surveillance program. They were just trying to scam some money as a bit of a side hustle.

SHAPIRO: What is the larger takeaway here when everything that everybody says on every side of this sounds logical and plausible enough?

REED: Common sense tells us these guys - you know, as Mike German in the movie points out, they had no plot. They had no weapons. They had no money. They had no means. To say that they were conspiring in support of al-Qaida is kind of nonsensical from the start. And when the FBI was surveilling them, I know that they kind of looked at each other like, who the heck are these guys?

Now, when a nation goes through something as paralyzing and as terrifying as 9/11, you want to be reassured, obviously, and you want to know that law enforcement and the government is doing something to protect you from the next one. That can very easily turn into the theater of security, you know, the illusion of security.

SHAPIRO: The men who were involved in this case are all free now. What impact did it have on their lives?

REED: This case ruined their lives, really. I mean, it put them away in prison for, you know, the best part of their young lives, their 20s and 30s. It took away their youth. And, you know, they're remarkably not bitter about what happened. What's remarkable is they were loyal to each other. None of them snitched on the others. They didn't take a plea deal because they all knew that they were innocent, that they were not terrorists.

The consequences for these young men were harsh. And they are still to this day labeled as terrorists. And I hope, you know, that watching the documentary, one of the things that we can take away from it is that they were not terrorists, but they got involved at a time when America was very afraid in a silly scam, in a stupid attempt to extort money. And it went horribly, horribly wrong. But the case illustrates the desperate need for the illusion of security, I think, rather than being something that is an actual milestone in America's sort of security journey towards a safer America.

SHAPIRO: Dan Reed's new documentary for "Frontline" is called "In The Shadow Of 9/11," and it's streaming now.

Thank you so much.

REED: Thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACKBIRD BLACKBIRD'S "HEARTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.