Federal prosecutors said the men — who operated out of a warehouse in Miami's blighted Liberty City section — took an oath to al Qaeda and plotted to create an "Islamic Army" bent on violence against the United States. Five of those arrested are U.S. citizens.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales stressed that there was no immediate threat in either Chicago or Miami because the group did not have explosives or other materials it was seeking.
"This group was more aspirational than operational," FBI Deputy Director John Pistole said.
Nevertheless, Gonzales said Thursday's arrests underscored the danger of "homegrown terrorists" who "view their home country as the enemy."
Identifying the suspects was possible due to hours upon hours of surveillance video of the suspects. Officials say they even have tape of them meeting in a warehouse where they joined in a circle, raised their hands, and — led by a guy who turned out to be an FBI informant — repeated the al Qaeda "pledge of allegiance," CBS News national security correspondent Jim Stewart reports.
Those arrested ranged in age from 22 to 32 and included a legal immigrant from Haiti and a Haitian who was in this country illegally. Investigators said all members of the alleged plot were in custody.
"We are confident that we have identified every individual who had the intent of posing a threat to the United States," said R. Alexander Acosta, U.S. attorney in Miami.
What scares the FBI, however, is how many gangs like this one are out there who haven't tripped over their own feet and gotten caught, Stewart reports. As CBS News reported earlier this month, in the past year, agents have busted al Qaeda-inspired cells in Torrance, Calif., Toledo, Ohio, and Atlanta — which had ties to a 17-man Toronto cell. Now there's Miami.
"These extremists are self-recruited, self trained and self executing," FBI director Robert Mueller said.
Six of the seven suspects accused of involvement in a terrorism plot have appeared in federal courts under heavy security, five in Miami and a sixth in Atlanta. In Miami, they were brought in and out in single file, chained together at the wrists and wearing ankle chains.
"It's an example of the philosophy of prevention. These arrests were made during the talking stage, long before any bombmaking stage," said Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney in Florida. "While they may be seen as bungling wannabes, they are potentially dangerous wannabes who, based on the allegations, were pursuing extremely dangerous plans."
Joseph Phanor, the father of defendant Stanley Grant Phanor, said he did not believe "anything they say about" his son.
"This boy, he's not a violent boy. He never got into trouble. He didn't want to kill people," the elder Phanor said. Court records show that his son was convicted of carrying a concealed firearm in 2002 and sentenced to two years' probation.
And questions are already being raised about the gravity of the charges against the men. CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen calls the indictment of the men "extraordinary for."
"It does not contain allegations that the men ever met with a genuine al Qaeda operative ... it does not contain allegations that the men ever purchased any munitions or went anywhere near Chicago to case the building. It does not contain allegations that the men had any sort of a specific plan or detailed plot to take down the Sears Tower," Cohen said.
But a multitude of urban and global circumstances can breed seeds of terror. First is the proliferation of Web sites on terrorist subjects — the London subway bombers, for example, got their explosives recipe off the Internet, Stewart reports. Then there are personal Web spaces where wannabe terrorists can search for like-minded people.