Florida Keys

Jurors hear terror suspect ordering backpack bomb, grenades from FBI informants

Federal agents blocked off parking in the 300 block of Simonton Street in Key West due to the trial of an alleged bomber.
Federal agents blocked off parking in the 300 block of Simonton Street in Key West due to the trial of an alleged bomber. Keynoter

During phone calls with FBI informants in July 2015, Harlem Suarez said he wanted to buy a backpack bomb about half the size of a pressure cooker, along with seven grenades, ammunition and a “rocket.”

Suarez, 25, believed he was talking to a connection to ISIS terrorists, federal prosecutors told jurors last week as the alleged would-be bomber’s federal trial opened in Key West.

“Don’t play games with us,” “Sharif,” one informant, said in a July 13, 2015, recorded call the jury listened to for more than one hour on Thursday. “You need to keep your word. That’s what a Muslim does. Muslim keeps his word. I love you, brother.”

The defense team of Richard Della Fera and Joshua Entin of Fort Lauderdale says Suarez, who lived with his parents on Stock Island, knows nothing of Islam and is anything but a homegrown would-be bomber.

Last week at U.S. District Court, 301 Simonton St., the government’s undercover informants appeared before a jury and the defense team — but not before the viewing public, which sat behind a royal-blue curtain during such testimony.

Prosecutors Karen Gilbert and Marc Anton even planned to call a representative of the Key West Chamber of Commerce to tell jurors the impact such a terrorist attack would have on Key West in the long term.

Suarez faces life if convicted of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and supporting a terrorist group. His trial will continue Monday and it was unclear Friday whether he will insist on taking the witness stand.

Sharif, during the July calls, scolded Suarez for failing to get a prepaid cellphone and for not answering when called. Suarez replied he works two jobs — his reason also for not following through with his alleged Fourth of July plan in 2015 to set off a bomb at a Keys beach — and is tired when he gets home. Also, his cellphone got wet and stopped working at one point.

“You can get one for $19.99, $29.99,” Sharif said. “Get 250 minutes.”

Suarez was arrested July 27, 2015, after buying an inert bomb the FBI rigged useless for the undercover sting, and has remained in federal custody since.

In court, Suarez appeared in a white shirt, dark pants and tie. His hair was shaved off and only an outline remained. He sat quietly wearing earbuds so he could listen to the court’s Spanish translator.

Suarez was born in Cuba and moved to the Keys when he was 12. He worked at Kmart during the time he made phone call after phone call to Sharif and another named Muhammad, who were really informants playing the roles of terrorist.

In court, shielded from the viewing audience but not Suarez and the attorneys and jury, the unidentified man who played Sharif said he gave Suarez a chance to back out of the bombing plot.

“I was playing a role of an ISIS extremist,” the informant told the jury. “I wanted to give him the opportunity to understand what he as asking, if he really wanted to have those weapons. That’s his opportunity to walk away.”

Instead, Suarez over the phone in more than one call seems to order weapons, including grenades, like a grocery store request.

“I’m gonna do the backpack,” Suarez says to Sharif. “That’s for sure. I’m gonna do the backpack.”

The two spent a long time talking about how to purchase a prepaid disposable cellphone. At one point, Sharif tells him to try CVS, Walgreens or Walmart.

“Hold on, Sharif, this is not Miami,” Suarez says, laughing about the fact that Walmart isn’t in the Keys. “Now you’re embarrassing me.”

Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen