NPR’s Ari Shapiro talks to director Dan Reed about his new film In the Shadow of 9/11, which re-examines the case of seven Miami men charged with an alleged al-Qaeda conspiracy.
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 Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced a case from Liberty City, a district in northern Miami. Seven men were arrested and charged with conspiracy to blow up the Sears Tower.
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ALBERTO GONZALES: And if they are not controlled, these indigenous terrorists could prove to be just as dangerous as groups like al-Qaida.
SHAPIRO: Robert Mueller, then FBI director, spoke about it on Larry King Live.
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ROBERT MUELLER: We’re doing a series of arrests and searches in Miami.
LARRY KING: Big concern?
MÜLLER: Whenever we perform such an operation, we would not do it without judicial authorization. We have search warrants and arrest warrants and the like. And yes, it is a concern.
SHAPIRO: But how real was the threat from the Liberty City Seven, as they were called? A new documentary for “Frontline” examines this question. The film is called “In The Shadow Of 9/11” and the director Dan Reed joins us now.
Welcome to ALL THINGS TO BE CONSIDERED.
DAN REED: Thank you. It’s great to be back on the show.
SHAPIRO: The background to this story is a shift in the priorities of the FBI after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Describe what that shift was.
REED: Well, the postponement was really triggered by President Bush the day after 9/11, who turned to FBI chief Robert Mueller and said, yes, I understand you are investigating yesterday’s attack, but what I really? want to know is what to do to prevent the next one. And this marks a pivotal point in the FBI’s role as it moves from being a crime-fighting organization to being an anti-terrorist and domestic intelligence agency. And it’s a role she wasn’t really prepared for.
SHAPIRO: And so there is this one vivid moment in the film where a former undercover agent says – and I’m paraphrasing here – before the 11th, OK, which terrorist group? What is the goal? What are their properties? How many weapons do you have? And if the agent replied, well, they don’t belong to any group, have no conspiracy or have guns, then the bosses would say get out of here.
SHAPIRO: How did that change after 9/11?
REED: Yeah, the bosses would say you need advice so you know …
SHAPIRO: Right, that was his line.
REED: Yeah. The madness will be – after 9/11 will be the method. And what has changed, obviously, is that America is overwhelmed with fear. The FBI’s job is to make America safe, find the sleeper cells, find the next al Qaeda terrorists with a 9/11 plan. And they really didn’t know how to go about it. So one of the methods they used was spike surgery really adapted to the war on drugs. These were essentially a type of person who was before crime (ph) who, quote, unquoted, was “probably terrorists”.
The Liberty City Seven Saga is truly the FBI’s first major counterterrorism stab that became very visible because the people arrested, the accused, chose to stand trial. They did not accept a plea deal. You have pleaded not guilty. You haven’t settled the case. They wanted to go to court because they thought they were innocent.
SHAPIRO: So this case, the Liberty City Seven counterterrorism operation, is at the heart of this film. Tell us who these seven guys were. I mean, until that spike operation began, they weren’t people who would ever be called terrorists.
REED: They weren’t. They were seven very young men in their early twenties. They weren’t part of a dangerous group in Liberty City. On the contrary, they have come together to teach martial arts to children. They had their own kind of spiritual philosophy that was mostly Christianity with a little bit of Judaism and a little bit of Islam – you know, a small group that ran their own business in this very criminal community of Liberty City at the time.
What made them so special was that the main man in the group, a guy named Narseal Batiste, was the son of some Christian preachers. His mother and father were Baptist ministers. And he considered himself some kind of messianic figure. He walked around in biblical robes and carried a staff. And he is at the center of this extraordinary story. But it was just – yes, those seven guys – and they had a construction company together and it wasn’t going well.
SHAPIRO: It is absolutely correct to say that these guys had previously shown no interest in terrorist acts. But, as the man overseeing the FBI investigation noted, they had a million different departures. There have been so many moments when it could have been said that we are not pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda. Actually, we’re not going to film any potential targets. But instead of going away, they went deeper and deeper. And, you know, they vividly describe the demolition of the Sears Tower. And so the FBI argues that law enforcement cannot simply get away from it. What do you think of this argument?
REED: I think 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 won’t actually do the things that were recorded to tell our informants they will. I think the missing part in this one that specifically motivates Narseal Batiste, the leader, is $ 50,000. Your business is bad. They want to deceive these Arab kind of financier slash terrorists.
SHAPIRO: The informant you believe is a member of Al Qaeda is …
SHAPIRO: … promised to pay them $ 50,000. And they say, oh, we can cheat this guy out of $ 50,000 by claiming we have a plan to blow up the Sears Tower.
REED: Exactly. You can see the extraordinary scenes in the film that – that were secretly videotaped by the FBI, where Batiste comes out with all this kind of bizarre – you know, describing scenarios from movies and just saying all sorts of things to the FBI- To please informants and okay, I told you about my terrorist attack. Can i have the money now
What the jury found hard to imagine was that these men had no idea they might be the target of an FBI surveillance program. They were just trying to scam some money as a sideline.
SHAPIRO: What is the bigger insight here when everything everyone on all sides has to say about it sounds logical and plausible enough?
REED: Common sense tells us that these guys – as Mike German points out in the film – had no plot. They had no weapons. They didn’t have any money. They had no means. To say they conspired to support al-Qaeda is pretty nonsensical from the start. And when the FBI was monitoring them, I knew they were kind of looking at each other: who the hell are these guys?
Of course, when a nation goes through something as crippling and horrific as 9/11, you want to have peace of mind and know that there is something law enforcement and government doing to protect you from the next one. It can very easily become the theater of security, you know, the illusion of security.
SHAPIRO: The men involved in this case are all free now. How did it affect your life?
REED: This case really ruined your life. I mean, it put her in jail for the best part of her young life, her 20s and 30s. It took away their youth. And you know, remarkably, they’re not bitter about what happened. It is noteworthy that they were faithful to one another. Neither of them sniffed at the other. They didn’t make a deal because they all knew they were innocent, that they weren’t terrorists.
The consequences for these young men were severe. And they are labeled as terrorists to this day. And I hope you know that while watching the documentary we got one of the things we can take away from the fact that they weren’t terrorists, but they got caught up in a stupid scam at a time when America was very scared of a stupid scam, a stupid one try to extort money. And it went terribly, terribly wrong. But the case demonstrates, I believe, an urgent need for the illusion of security, rather than being something that is an actual milestone on America’s path to a safer America.
SHAPIRO: Dan Reed’s new documentary for “Frontline” is called “In The Shadow Of 9/11” and is now being streamed.
Thank you very much.
REED: Thank you, Ari.
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