The government portrays him as a cult leader and radical terrorist who dreamed of felling U.S. landmark buildings.
But Narseal "Brother Naz" Batiste is a lot more interesting than that.
Bred in religion, bound with discipline, and born to hustle, Batiste led his six "brothers" in a sect they called the Universal Divine Saviors. The nation knows them as the "Liberty City Seven," on trial in Miami on terrorism charges that could land them all in prison for 70 years.
There may be seven defendants, but there's only one star of the trial, Batiste, whose idiosyncrasies were on display for several days on the witness stand.
Raised on Chicago's East Side, Batiste is a devoutly religious con man, a highly disciplined and energetic failure, a family man who cares deeply about the community he wants to exploit.
Oh, and he breaks bricks with his bare hands. Used to do it to entertain kids at Oak Grove Park in Liberty City.
"Nobody was bored when they were around us because we always did something exciting," Batiste testified of the Universal Divine Saviors' pre-investigation glory days. "For example, in my skill in the area of martial arts, I specialize in breaking bricks. So the kids found that very attractive, to actually see somebody break two-inch bricks. We would stack them up, like, four bricks in a stack, and I would break them in front of the children...
"I had a bow staff. Usually children associate the bow staff in karate movements with the Buddhist priest who walks around with this staff. I would wield it around like a baton, and it was very unique in a way, because I did it in a martial arts form called aikido, which is like dance. And it looks kind of like ballet, but it's not as sensitive and soft as ballet. It has much more of a... tai chi perspective."
Batiste can talk. He talked a lot at his trial, trying to convince the jury that he was no terrorist. And he convinced me. It's increasingly obvious that the bullshitting Batiste was playing a cat-and-mouse game with FBI informant Abbas al-Saidi in the hopes of bagging big money from people he thought were connected to al Qaeda's money.
It's hard to tell who was more broke or desperate, al-Saidi or Batiste. The informant, whose misdeeds were reported in this space last week, claims he was ripped off for $30,000 in a convenience store deal. He was so desperate that he offered Batiste $10,000 if Batiste and his brothers helped him get the money back.
Al-Saidi was so flat financially that he actually bunked for a time in the rundown little warehouse that Batiste and his followers rented in Liberty City.
The ethically damaged informant — who once extorted a man who raped his girlfriend — knew that if he could create a case against Batiste, he'd get paid by the FBI. And the feds obliged him to the tune of more than $40,000 in cash over the course of the six-month investigation.
Batiste never saw his big payday, though the FBI did string him along with about $4,500 and other gifts, including a digital camera. At the same time, his construction business was going downhill. And Batiste not only had a fledgling religious group to develop but also a wife and four kids to feed at home.
He testified that his dream of building a "religious society" and his own financial difficulties drove him into the arms of the informants, where he pretended to be a budding terrorist. And he claimed in court that al-Saidi encouraged him to act the part to the hilt.
"I understood that if I didn't play the role that Abbas was telling me that I needed to play that I would not get the kind of financial help that I was looking for," Batiste testified.
On numerous surveillance tapes, Brother Naz can be heard and seen playing that role. He told both al-Saidi and a second paid FBI informant, Elie Assad, that he would create chaos, blow up the Sears Tower and Empire State Building, poison salt shakers across an entire city, apparently whatever sounded good at the time. From his testimony:
"I began to talk about the Sears Tower because I knew that if I talked about something big with him and I carried this façade image that I had this big plan, that then he would go ahead and say, 'OK, great. This guy's worth a half a million dollars. I'm gonna give it to him.' "
The informants, however, pushed him for a blueprint for making such destruction. After all, pie-in-the-sky talk about knocking down some of the biggest buildings in the world doesn't a conspiracy make.
"Well, he wants to know my plan," Batiste testified, "and that's what he's asking me, 'What is your plan?' And I started talking about metaphysics and reincarnation, and the guy, he's not feeling that."
No, and the FBI agents overseeing the investigation couldn't have enjoyed it either. Batiste was a flake. He didn't have any strong political feelings about the Middle East; all he had was a half-baked philosophy involving mathematical formulas and his own past lives.
Batiste was making it up as he went along, and his informants helped fill in the blanks. Batiste had no real plans, no know-how, no real intent — at least none that the government proved. He testified, for instance, that at one point he ran to a 7-Eleven to get magazines about guns so he could sound like he knew what he was talking about.
He never came close to carrying out any attacks. The only weapons found by the FBI were from the pre-industrial age, things like ninja swords. Perhaps he planned to chop down the Sears Tower with them.
If his philosophy didn't derive from Osama bin Laden, then where did it come from?
The answer is as strange and perplexing as the defendant himself. Two of his spiritual advisers have names that sound as if they came from Star Wars movies — Master Althea and Sultan Khan Bey.
The staff-carrying, enrobed Althea was a self-styled street minister who blended Christianity, Judaism, and Islam to form something of a fundamentalist catchall religion. The bedrock of the Universal Divine Saviors, however, was a belief in the Bible and Jesus.
"He taught me personally that, in order to walk a righteous path, first thing you need not to do is make a mockery of people," Batiste testified. "Don't laugh at people that are handicapped. Don't laugh at people that are dumb, that cannot speak. And don't laugh at people that are blind. Help those people."
Bey is the flamboyant, fez-wearing leader of something called the Moorish Science Temple in Chicago. That religion is based on the idea that African-Americans are descended from Moors and are therefore Muslims. Bey was born Charles Stewart, and he has a long criminal record, including a rape conviction.
Throw in the regimentation of the Guardian Angels, which Batiste was part of back in the early '90s, and touches of freemasonry, Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism and you're on your way to understanding the man's bizarre ethos.
And he couldn't hold it together. His life began falling apart when Bey flew down from Chicago to visit his temple in April 2006. The sultan, as he was routinely called in court, didn't like Batiste's dealings with what Bey termed the "Arabian or Nigerian mafia" and immediately suspected they were federal agents.
The sultan was enraged when he saw that Batiste was teaching the Bible instead of the Koran. He loathed the influence that Althea had on his pupil. He reacted by virtually taking over the temple and charging Batiste with treason and insubordination under Moorish law.
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The sultan got so out of sorts about the situation that he fired a gun at a rare remaining Batiste supporter. It led to his arrest on weapons charges on May 5, 2006, six weeks before the FBI arrested the Liberty City Seven.
Batiste, meanwhile, was left destitute and paranoid. His religious group no longer existed. His brothers abandoned him.
"I wanted to speak with [informant Abbas] to let him know that, basically, I'm out of the deal," Batiste testified. "It was never like what I expected from the very beginning. Everything is just going crazy. I mean, this deal that I had between him and me, I involved this in my life. Because I involved this in my life, it's caused a lot of discomfort, and it's really basically broke up my religious society that I had been building."
To feed his kids, he pawned the camera that the informants had given him for $56. Not long thereafter, the FBI finally busted Batiste, who was already a broken man.