Narseal Batiste, 35, dabbed at his eyes with a tissue when U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard wondered in court how he was transformed from a hardworking family man struggling to build an inner-city construction business to the unquestioned leader of a quasi-religious, paramilitary group seeking support from al Qaeda for terrorism.
"You've done great harm to yourself, your family, the young men who were your followers, and you've violated the trust of your country," Lenard said.
Batiste, who faced a maximum of 70 years in prison, was convicted in May of conspiracy to provide material support to al Qaeda, plotting to blow up buildings and conspiracy to wage war against the U.S. Four other men described as Batiste's soldiers were also convicted and sentenced to between six and 10 years behind bars.
The sentencing Friday marked the culmination of a case that began with an FBI raid in June 2006 on the group's warehouse, known as the "Embassy," in Miami's impoverished Liberty City neighborhood. Top U.S. officials acknowledged at the time that the Sears Tower and FBI plots never got past the discussion stage and the group never acquired the means to carry out such audacious attacks.
The case was viewed as a prime example of the post-9/11 law enforcement strategy of stopping terror plots in the earliest possible stages, before the proverbial fuse is lit.
"We shouldn't have to wait for people to be harmed to punish these people for their desire to inflict harm," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacqueline Arango.
But critics, including Batiste attorney Ana M. Jhones, called it an overblown case of FBI entrapment.
"No one in the United States was ever in any danger. There were absolutely no steps taken to wage war," she said.
The conviction was built on dozens of FBI recordings, mainly of meetings between Batiste and an FBI informant posing as an emissary from al Qaeda. One key piece of evidence was a ceremony in which Batiste and his followers each pledged loyalty to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and the group also took photos at the informant's direction of Miami's FBI office and several downtown government buildings.
There were two mistrials and two men were acquitted before prosecutors finally won the case earlier this year. Batiste testified at all three trials that he never aspired to be a terrorist and only went along in hopes of scamming the FBI informant out of $50,000.
At the sentencing hearing, Batiste apologized to his family and the young men who became his followers, and blamed his "arrogance and pride" for leading him down the wrong path.
"I wanted respect. I wanted to be this person that I really wasn't," he said. "I've never been a violent person."
The FBI tapes paint a far different portrait of Batiste, who is heard calling the U.S. government "of the devil" and discussing how he wanted to build "an Islamic army for Islamic jihad." The attack on the 110-story Sears Tower - now called the Willis Tower - would be the tipping point for overthrowing the U.S. government.
"I'm ready for war," he says on one recording.
Batiste has been jailed since his June 2006 arrest, giving him roughly 10 more years to serve under Friday's sentence. After that, he will remain on probation for 35 years.