FRONTLINE: In The Shadow Of 9/11
Premieres Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV / On Demand
This August, as the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, approaches, FRONTLINE presents “In The Shadow Of 9/11,” the latest documentary from award-winning director Dan Reed (“Leaving Neverland”) chronicling a pivotal but often forgotten landmark case from the post-9/11 “War on Terror” for the first time on television as a documentary feature.
Following its world premiere at Sheffield DocFest in June, Reed’s five-years-in-the making documentary examines the domestic terrorism case of the “Liberty City Seven” — a group of Black men from Miami accused of planning an al Qaeda plot to blow up U.S. buildings, including Chicago’s Sears Tower.
Their trial marked the U.S. government’s first major post-9/11 domestic counter-terrorism sting. Yet the men had no weapons and never communicated with anyone from al Qaeda.
The documentary goes inside the case and examines this under-reported chapter of 9/11’s legacy — raising questions about the FBI’s tactics, and whether the men posed a legitimate threat to national security.
“This is a cautionary tale… be careful as to how far your undercover agents or your informants push,” says former Department of Justice Counter-Terror chief Mike Mullaney. “The goal is not to take somebody that is not a terrorist and make them a terrorist.”
The film explores the FBI’s shift to focus on counterterrorism in the wake of 9/11 — working with witnesses and undercover informants to obtain information about potential domestic threats — and offers a window into the agency’s strategy for preventing another tragedy on U.S. soil.
“Some of the things that fell through the gap allowed 9/11 to happen,” says former Acting Supervisory Special Agent with the FBI in Miami Anthony Velazquez. “We could not allow for anything like that to fall through a gap, again.”
So, in 2005, when the Miami FBI learned of a group of men in Liberty City who had formed quasi-religious temple, were allegedly conducting military training, expressing interest in overthrowing the U.S. government and wanting to meet al Qaeda, the agency honed in on the tip.
Under the promise of monetary support, Narseal Batiste — deemed the “ringleader” of the group of accused men — became unknowingly connected with two undercover FBI informants.
Batiste would later say he was trying to scam money, but it quickly unravelled into him doing and saying increasingly bizarre and dangerous things, including pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda and discussing plots for domestic terrorism attacks – all secretly recorded by one of the FBI informants.
“I was never good at being no type of scam artist. This [was] the first time in my life I'm ever really trying to run a scam,” says Batiste. “I thought… if I can just get the money... I can pay these immediate bills…..And even though it was against my morals and values, I felt like if I can go through it and get the money, then all of that would be washed away.”
“I looked towards Batiste, I was like, ‘Hey uh, Batiste, is this cool or this- this alright man?’” says Stanley “Sunny” Phanor, one of the seven accused men. “We barely had time to even think… ‘Who give oaths to Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda?’…This is what we see on TV. Even if it was real, it wasn't real. ‘Cause it doesn't happen where we come from.”
As the film reveals, Batiste’s actions led to the eventual arrest of him and six others, despite none of the accused men having weapons, money, or any formal communication with legitimate members from al-Qaeda.
“It was like fifty agents...They were like, ‘Get on the ground’… I'm thinking everything I did back in the day, and then the oath and then the pictures and everything flashed in my mind, I'm like... it was a set-up,” says Burson “B” Augustin, another man accused in the Liberty City Seven case.
For some, this sounded the alarm that the men might not pose a true threat; to others, the damage had been done — ultimately making the Liberty City case a flashpoint in a debate over the FBI’s post-9/11 actions, and whether the men should have been the focus of such an extensive sting operation.
“They didn't have the manner and means, they had no money, they barely had vehicles. They didn't have horses… and they certainly didn't have bombs,” says attorney Albert Levin, who represented one of the seven men in court. “It was just a complete, you know, setup by the government. The plot was being moved forward by the informants and the FBI.”
“A conversation is an act. So, you don't need to pick up a gun or let off a bomb or make a bomb for it to be an overt act,” says former federal prosecutor Jackie Arango. “Whether these people were being paid or not, the question is, are they willing to commit these acts? Whether it's for money or it's for free.”
Following two mistrials, five of the seven men were convicted in a third trial while two defendants were acquitted and deported to Haiti. Since then, all five have been released from prison, but the lasting impact of the ordeal remains.
“I lost everything I was. My whole thirties was spent in prison. In your thirties that's when you buy a house, you know what I mean? You start to be financially…sound, you know? Having kids, you know, I spent all that time in prison,” says Phanor. “So I'm out right now, I don't got no kids. No...no wife, no girlfriend...no real job.”
Through insider interviews with FBI officials, counterterrorism experts, attorneys, journalists, family members and several of the Liberty City Seven themselves, “In The Shadow Of 9/11” depicts what America was willing to do to make a panicked nation feel safe — offering a window into how American intelligence changed in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and the ramifications of a desperate search to hunt down the “enemy within.”
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An AMOS Pictures production in association with GBH/FRONTLINE for Channel 4. Filmed, produced, and directed by Dan Reed. The producers are Owen Phillips and Marguerite Gaudin. Edited by Mark Towns and Samuel R Santana. The executive producer for FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.