The biggest Al Qaeda plot the FBI claimed to have foiled in the years following the 9/11 attacks involved no weapons, no plot, and no Al Qaeda. Instead, the vague, implausible threat by a group of construction workers in Florida to blow up U.S. buildings, including Chicago’s Sears Tower, was mostly the making of the FBI, whose undercover operatives sought out the men, promised them money, and coached them over months to implicate themselves in a conspiracy to commit violent acts they never actually intended or had the means to carry out.
The “Liberty City Seven” case — known by its connection to the poor, violence-ridden Miami neighborhood where the men involved lived — was the most high-profile FBI investigation of a supposed terrorist cell after the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. It came as the bureau, which had failed to act on intelligence it had received before 9/11, faced enormous pressure to predict and stop the next attack, setting off its transformation, in the words of former Deputy Director John Pistole, “from reactive crime-solving agency to preventative national security agency.”
The ordeal of the seven Black men, most of them Haitian American, who were manipulated by two paid FBI informants into pledging allegiance to Al Qaeda is recounted in a new Frontline documentary, “In the Shadow of 9/11,” by British director Dan Reed.
“It was kind of really absurd, almost unbelievable,” said Reed, who has previously directed documentaries about terror attacks in Moscow and Mumbai. “I didn’t really understand how the Liberty City guys could have got themselves in this predicament.”
The story of the seven men, five of whom were sentenced to a cumulative 43 years in federal prison in connection to the case, is a largely forgotten tale about the lengths to which government agencies were empowered to go in the panicked aftermath of 9/11 and about the absurdities the U.S. criminal justice apparatus sold to the public in the name of national security. The case is indicative of how quickly the so-called war on terror morphed into a battle to shape a narrative: that there was a real threat — and that the U.S. government was winning.
The case set the stage for hundreds of FBI sting operations in the following years, as the bureau continued to frame individuals who were often poor, credulous, and had dubious ability to independently plan any attacks. In doing so, the agency leaned on a sprawling surveillance apparatus set up after 9/11 and used constitutionally protected speech as a basis for monitoring people, even as bureau officials regularly denied doing so. FBI agents relied heavily on well-paid informants operating with little accountability. And they expanded the stings to an ever-growing list of supposed threats: not only foreign-inspired ideologies but also domestic ones, like that posed by what the FBI called “black identity extremism.”
As The Intercept has detailed in the “Trial and Terror” database, most of the nearly 1,000 people the U.S. has prosecuted for terrorism since 9/11 never came close to committing an act of violence. Like the Liberty City Seven, most had no connection to terrorist groups and many were set up in FBI stings.