A former Chicago man who once drove a FedEx truck here and whose parents and siblings were Baptist preachers was identified Friday by prosecutors as the ringleader of an alleged plot to blow up the Sears Tower for al-Qaida and "kill all the devils we can."
Narseal Batiste, 32, was among five men arrested Thursday in Miami for allegedly planning to bomb the 110-story skyscraper -- as well as the FBI building in Miami and other government facilities there. A sixth defendant already was in Florida custody on a probation violation, and a seventh man was arrested in Atlanta.
At a news conference Friday in Washington, D.C., Attorney General Alberto Gonzales accused Batiste of plotting since November 2005 to "wage a full ground war" on the United States.
But an uncle said he could not believe Batiste is capable of masterminding the murder of innocents.
"He's a follower more than a leader," said John J. Ford, 67, of Chicago. "He wasn't no ringleader about nothing."
On Friday, Batiste appeared at a federal court hearing in Miami with a thin beard and shaved head. He told a judge he is self-employed with four children and earns about $30,000 a year but does not have any property.
Records show he obtained a peddler's permit in Miami last year. Batiste and his co-defendants sold shampoo and other items on the street, according to neighbors of the warehouse where they slept. Some residents said their compound looked like a military boot camp, with men exercising as others stood guard.
'Familiar with the Sears Tower'
The men conducted reconnaissance on south Florida government buildings and took oaths of allegiance to Osama bin Laden and to al-Qaida, the terror group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, prosecutors said.
Batiste allegedly sought assistance from a person he thought was a representative of al-Qaida but was actually a government informant working with federal agents to infiltrate the group. Batiste told the informant about his strategy to destroy the Sears Tower, according to an indictment unsealed Friday.
In December, the informant provided Batiste with military boots he requested for his "soldiers." Two days later, Batiste asked the informant for radios, binoculars, bulletproof vests, firearms, vehicles and $50,000 in cash, the indictment said.
In a February meeting with the informant, Batiste said he wanted to "kill all the devils we can" in a mission that would be "just as good or greater than 9/11," the indictment said.
The same month, he allegedly asked the informant for a video camera for a trip to Chicago and asked the informant to travel with him, the indictment said.
A law enforcement source said Batiste tried to gain information about the security features of the Sears Tower, but the source could not say if Batiste actually traveled to Chicago to scope out the building.
In March, Batiste and co-defendants Patrick Abraham, Stanley Grant Phanor, Naudimar Herrera, Burson Augustin, Lyglenson Lemorin and Rotschild Augustine met with the informant in their Miami warehouse and plotted to bomb FBI buildings in five cities, including one in North Miami Beach, the indictment said.
But the group never obtained explosives or other weapons, Gonzales said. Federal investigators stepped in before the group posed a serious threat, he said.
Batiste "was familiar with the Sears Tower, had worked in Chicago and had been there, familiar with the tower, but it -- in terms of the plans -- was more aspirational than operational," said FBI Deputy Director John Pistole.
No hike in city terror level
Batiste and his co-defendants have been charged with providing material support to al-Qaida and conspiring to levy war against the United States. Five of them -- including Batiste -- are U.S. citizens. Lemorin is a permanent legal resident, and Abraham is a Haitian national in the country illegally, prosecutors said.
No arrests, search warrants or charges have been filed in Chicago in connection with the investigation, said Andrew Velasquez III, head of the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communication.
"As far as home-grown terrorists cultivating gangs locally, the Police Department monitors gang activity on a daily basis," Velasquez said. "We have an extensive network of intelligence that is tracked through our gang intelligence unit locally and beyond Chicago."
Chicago Police Supt. Phil Cline said there are no plans to raise the city's terror warning level and no reason for citizens to feel threatened as the city's main festival, Taste of Chicago, approaches. "The Taste will have extra security as it has every year since 9/11. Federal assets come in and assist during any high-profile public event," Cline said.
Chicago Police said the only contact they previously have had with Batiste was a 1993 arrest for smashing a car window. Batiste was convicted and sentenced to probation, which authorities threatened to revoke when he was slow to pay his victim $50 for the damage, records show. The arrest report said he used his brother Maxwell's name as an alias and had told police he was a photographer.
Cook County court records show Batiste was convicted in absentia in 2001 for failing to pay $4,835 in overdue credit card charges.
Also in 2001, Batiste declared bankruptcy in Chicago, saying he was more than $11,000 in debt even though he earned $51,000 the previous year. He told the court he drove for FedEx and was married with two sons, ages 2 and 6.
In March, Batiste was arrested in Florida on a charge of aggravated battery after he and a co-defendant in the terror case allegedly used their martial-arts skills on a man in a dispute over a parking space, records show.
Mom 'held everyone together'
Batiste was raised in Chicago and attended high school here. His family kept a house in Louisiana and split time between the two homes, said Ford, his uncle.
Batiste may have moved to Florida a few years ago because his sister had once lived there, said Ford.
Batiste came from a deeply religious family. His parents, sister and a brother were all preachers, Ford said.
His late mother, Audrey Ford Batiste, was the matriarch who kept her daughter and five sons on a short leash. Narseal Batiste was the youngest.
"When his momma was living, they wouldn't do nothing unless they called her," Ford said. "If she didn't give them the OK, they wouldn't move."
After his mother died in 2000, "it seemed like he lost his best friend. She was the knot that held everyone together."
At her funeral, Batiste and his brother Buffert "Curtis" Batiste insisted on being alone with her body for four hours to pray over her, Ford said.
'Just a regular kid'
The funeral was at a small church in Louisiana that Audrey Ford Batiste and Narcisse J. Batiste, Narseal's father, operated. Narcisse Batiste lives in Louisiana, Ford said.
He described his nephew as an aspiring photographer who was "very respectful." He didn't drink or smoke and was not "too outgoing," Ford said.
"He's just a regular kid. He didn't have no big ideas or nothing," said Ford, who hasn't spoken to Batiste since his mother's death.
In the early 1990s, Batiste lived near 116th and Loomis. Residents recall his parents holding Baptist services in their basement.
"They carried themselves as Christians," said former neighbor Gracie Jordan.
Narseal Batiste would say hello to the neighbors when he would come by.
"This doesn't even fit the picture of what I remember," said Evelyn Johnson, another former neighbor. Her husband, Sharkey Johnson, said, "I guess you never know."
The Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations commended the FBI for the arrests.
"The case of this bizarre cultist group is evidence that the phenomenon of terrorism is not monolithic, that it is multifaceted in both the makeup of potential terrorists and the particular context from which they draw inspiration," said Ahmed Rehab, the head of the council.
Contributing: Lisa Donovan, Esther J. Cepeda, Natasha Korecki and Lynn Sweet