A Stock Island man arrested Tuesday on a federal terrorism charge worked at Key West International Airport until March.
Harlem Suarez, 23, is accused of sympathizing with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant movement. He faces up to life in prison after federal agents charged him with knowingly attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, a shrapnel-laden bomb.
His initial would-be targets were Marathon on the Fourth of July (thousands of people go to a community celebration there each year) or South Beach in Miami, authorities say. That date passed, but he still sought to practice an attack by blowing up a bomb at a Key West beach, the feds say.
Suarez had worked as a station agent with Envoy Air, a regional affiliate of American Airlines, at the airport since December 2013, an airline spokesperson confirmed Thursday.
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The airline’s media relations department declined to answer whether Suarez quit his job or was fired.
He worked at the departure and arrival gates of the airport.
Suarez, who also called himself Almlak Benitez, came to the U.S. from Cuba with his family in 2004. He attended Key West High School from August 2005 to January 2009 but did not graduate.
John Welsh, who was principal at Key West High School from 2001 to 2010, talked to Suarez several times.
"It was mostly about attendance. He had attendance problems,” Welsh said. “He wasn’t a problem child or anything. I think his attendance was his biggest problem. He was a very quiet young man.”
“He would always verbalize that he wanted to work. He didn’t really offer resistance or anything like that. He was never disrespectful."
Antonio Kongos was Suarez’s classmate.
He described Suarez, who lived with his family in a Stock Island apartment complex on Shrimp Road, as shy and quiet. The two talked motorcycles; Suarez had two Yamahas. Kongos said Suarez worked on upgrading everything from air filters to wiring lights.
"He only had a few other friends and rarely, if ever, posted in Facebook," Kongos said. "To me, he seemed like an average guy. He worked a lot and had decent hobbies like motorcycles, mopeds, even a boat at one time."
Kongos recalled last talking to Suarez about 10 days ago. "It was simply about motorcycles," he said.
A detention hearing for Suarez is scheduled before U.S. Duty Magistrate Judge Edwin G. Torres Monday at 9:45 a.m. in Miami federal court. His arraignment is scheduled before Duty Magistrate Judge Patrick A. White for Aug. 11 at 9:45 a.m., also in Miami.
Suarez's lawyer, Richard Della Fera, said a trial is a "long way off." He met with Suarez Wednesday.
"My initial impression is this guy is a troubled, confused young man who doesn't know the first thing about radical Islam," Della Fera said.
Suarez reportedly told undercover FBI informants on July 3 that he wanted to attack police by either detonating a car bomb or by placing bombs under police cruisers.
Suarez allegedly came to the attention of authorities after a person to whom Suarez sent a Facebook request noticed his Islamist extremist posts, according to the criminal complaint. That person sent the information to the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office on April 8.
That Sheriff's Office showed screen shots of Suarez's Facebook page, which was under the name Almlak Benitez, to the FBI, which set up a sting using the informants.
Suarez told the informants he considered himself a member of the Islamic State and that "one day I will cook American" ... "in cages" ... "flaming."
One of the informants, posing as a member of the Islamic State, told Suarez at a meeting in a Homestead hotel room that he would get back to him with prices for grenades and other explosive material needed to make a backpack bomb.
While the July 4 attacks never happened, Suarez continued to discuss buying the grenades and backpack bomb materials, authorities say.
During a recorded phone call with one of the informants, Suarez said he needed to learn to make a timer for the bombs. Suarez and the FBI informants also filmed a video aimed at recruiting local Muslims to join the Islamic State.
He legally purchased an AK-47 assault rifle online but when he went to pick it up from a Key West pawn shop, which is not named in the arrest report, he filled out the paperwork wrong and the pawn shop clerk would not give him the weapon.
Suarez told one of the informants he planned to test the bomb by burying it in the sand on a Key West beach and detonating it using a cell phone timer.
"I can go to the beach at night time ... put the thing in the sand ... cover it up so the next day I just call and the thing is gonna, is gonna make a real hard noise from nowhere, and like people are gonna be like what, where is this [expletive] came from," Suarez told the informant, according to the arrest report.
One of the sources told Suarez on a recorded phone call the bomb was ready and they could meet on July 27. When the men met inside a car, the informant showed Suarez how to detonate the bomb, which was a fake. Federal agents arrested him when he exited the car.
In a statement Tuesday, George L. Piro, special agent in charge of the FBI's Miami office, said "there is no room for failure when it comes to investigating the potential use of a weapon of mass destruction."
Reporter editor David Goodhue contributed to this report.