A rather odd trial is now underway in Key West for a rather odd defendant, 25-year-old Harlem Suarez, who stands accused of planning to bomb police officers on behalf of the Islamic State.
The Miami Herald lays out some of the curious conditions imposed on prosecutors and jurors:
A Florida Keys jury won’t learn Harlem Suarez legally bought an AK-47 rifle during the same time period the government says the Stock Island man plotted to bomb a local beach.
Jurors also cannot view certain photos from his Facebook page that his lawyers would describe in court documents only as “highly graphic in nature,” and prosecutors must take care not to argue Suarez is a terrorist or a member of a terrorist organization.
Suarez’s Facebook activities included “extremist rhetoric about recruiting for ISIL,” which prompted a report to the FBI in April 2015. “Be a warrior, learn how to cut your enemies head and then burn down the body learn how to be the new future of the world Caliphate,” he said in one Facebook post, repeated as written by the Herald.
He ran two Facebook pages, one of them under the alias “Almlak Benitez,” but even the page under his own name listed “jihadist” and “extraordinary prayer for ISIS” under his “Likes.”
Even with the handicaps imposed on prosecutors, their case against Suarez looks strong. He was caught in an FBI sting operation after attempting to purchase grenades and bomb-making materials from an undercover informant.
He was recorded telling the informant, “I’m gonna do the backpack, that’s for sure, I’m gonna do the backpack” — a reference to the bomb he intended to create. The bomb would have been packed with nails to inflict maximum carnage. He had already purchased the nails at the time of his arrest.
Prosecutors say his objective was to rig bombs under police cars or kill police officers with a car bomb attack. He also talked about staging attacks on beaches in Key West, Marathon, or Miami during the Fourth of July holiday.
Another undercover video has Suarez declaring that “Muslim brothers” should buy “AKs, knives, and machetes” and prepare to fight.
He said the same thing in one of his Facebook posts: “Stand up with us my brother. Stand up with the black flag and the AK with 10 mag, fight with us, be a gangster with us, kill our enemies and convert to Islam now in USA.”
Suarez has proven to be quite a headache for his legal defense team, which has twice asked for permission to withdraw from his case. He once wrote to the judge and asked for all the charges against him to be dropped because his record showed that he was a “responsible gun owner.” (In fact, he legally purchased an AK-47 rifle before his arrest, but he never picked it up, because he did not fill out the paperwork correctly. That is one of the details the magistrate instructed the jury not to consider.)
Not surprisingly, his counsel has attempted the insanity defense. As the Broward-Palm Beach New Times reported in November 2015, they were able to marshal some evidence to support the claim: his friends and family have said he believes in vampires, zombies, Bigfoot, mermaids, and the Smurfs. He has repeatedly been described as having the mind of an 11- or 12-year-old. His defenders accuse the FBI of taking advantage of a man with serious mental problems.
“What I’ve observed is a young man who is very immature for his age, has a very low intellect, and I think that that plays into what happened to him,” defense attorney Richard Della Fera said after a court appearance in August 2015.
At Suarez’s trial Monday, Della Fera declared, “There’s no action, it’s just talk. Harlem Suarez is not even a practicing Muslim and knows very little, if anything, about the Islamic religion.”
The Miami Herald reports Della Fera “stood up to say his client was goaded, intimidated, and directed into trying to buy explosives from a paid FBI informant.”
Several undercover informants testified on the first day of the trial, including one who quoted Suarez saying, “Everyone against us must die. We are ISIS Muslims. One day I will cook Americans.”
CBS News reports the trial is expected to last about two weeks, and Suarez could face life in prison if convicted.