The ringleader of the seven men accused of plotting to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago was a “Moses-like figure” who carried a crooked cane and wore a cape as he sought to recruit followers to a religious cult called the Seas of David.
Narseal Batiste, 32, a martial arts enthusiast, led his oddball group of what he called “soldiers” seeking to wage a “full ground war” against America, according to charges brought last week.
The father of four, known to his followers as Prinze Naz, sometimes wore a bathrobe when entering the shabby warehouse in Miami that FBI officials claim was the base of the would-be terrorists.
Alberto Gonzales, the US attorney-general, claimed the arrested men, five from the US and two from Haiti, were inspired by a “violent jihadist message”. Dick Cheney, the vice-president, called the group a “very real threat”.
Batiste and his followers swore an oath of allegiance to Al-Qaeda and requested help from an undercover agent to buy weapons, explosives and uniforms, according to the indictment. He sought $50,000 to fund his mission and boasted that his attacks would be “as good or greater than 9/11”.
Batiste’s targets were said to have included the Miami FBI building as well as the Sears Tower, America’s tallest building. He was secretly recorded and filmed by the FBI, which infiltrated the group after a tip-off from a member of the public.
No weapons or explosives have been found at the windowless warehouse that Batiste called the “temple” in a rundown area of Miami.
Batiste grew up in Chicago and, as a young man, joined the Guardian Angels, a beret-wearing citizens’ crime prevention group. In 1994 he told his father, a former preacher, that he was “joining the Muslims” but his beliefs bear little relation to orthodox Islam.
A close friend said his teachings came from the Moorish Science Temple of America, an early 20th century religion founded by the Noble Drew Ali, a wandering African-American circus magician who claimed to have been raised by Cherokee Indians and to have learnt “high magic” in Egypt. Ali went on to style himself an “angel” and prophet of Allah.
The Seas of David borrows tenets from Judaism and Christianity as well as Islam and emphasises self-discipline through martial arts.
Batiste was known to hate President George W Bush and the war in Iraq. Neighbours would see his followers practising martial arts but paid little attention to them. “It seemed like a military boot camp,” said one.
Batiste’s wife Minerva said yesterday: “I believe my husband is innocent of all charges.”