Harlem Suarez spent last week watching FBI informants tell a federal jury in Key West that he gleefully sought to purchase a backpack bomb, grenades and extra ammunition for his rifle for a terrorist attack in the name of ISIS.
On Monday morning, Suarez got the chance to speak for himself.
“I made them believe I was going to try to make bombs so he would stop asking me for my guns,” Suarez said through a Spanish translator at U.S. District Court, referring to the men he met on Facebook who offered him weapons and guidance on how to blow up people with a timer bomb.
Everything that preceded his July 27, 2015, arrest behind a South Roosevelt Boulevard restaurant came from merely an interest in ISIS, he said, from watching news reports.
“I wanted to know about their behavior and how they are,” Suarez said. “I started on Facebook.”
“Why? Were you doing a book report?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Gilbert asked during cross-examination, drawing an objection from defense attorney Richard Della Fera.
“I don’t think that’s argumentative,” Judge Jose Martinez ruled.
Suarez replied, “No, señora.”
Suarez began Monday morning by testifying on direct examination with his own attorney asking the questions.
“They wanted me to make an attack, something that I did not want to do,” Suarez said of the undercover informants he seemingly befriended. “I was trying to find a way to get away from them.”
Suarez, 25, of Stock Island faces life in prison if convicted of trying to use a weapon of mass destruction. He chose to testify at his trial after waiting since his arrest July 27, 2015, for his day in court. His parents sat in a row filled with family friends, watching silently as he told the jury he was pretending the entire time he wanted to set off a bomb for ISIS.
“Mentally, I felt threatened, and that my family could be in danger,” Suarez said in response to questions about why he never told police, his parents or the men he contacted to order up a backpack bomb, seven grenades and magazines filled with ammunition for the AR-15 rifle he already owned, along with two Glock handguns.
Suarez, with his head shaved and dressed as if for a job interview in a white dress shirt, striped tie and pants, repeatedly said, “Si, señora,” or “No, señora” to Gilbert.
“You got dressed up, like we saw in the video, with a bullet-proof vest, gun holsters and pouches to hold all types of magazines,” Gilbert said, reminding him of the May 2015 meeting he had in a Homestead motel room with two FBI informants. “You talk about wanting to have 1,000 rounds of ammunition.”
At one point, Bernardo Suarez bowed his head and prayed the Rosary as his son testified he only wanted to learn about ISIS when he posted in March 2015 calls to violence on a Facebook page under an alias. The father, who works two manual labor jobs in Key West, including a maintenance job for the city, held his Rosary beads with his forehead pressed to his hands as the cross swayed slowly below his face.
Suarez’ parents appeared emotionally drained after court broke for lunch. They declined to speak with reporters.
Suarez said he figured the Key West police wouldn’t believe him if he had gone to them in 2015, and he didn’t want to upset his parents by telling them.
His explanation for all of the government’s case — the hours of recorded phone calls in which he spoke about wanting a bomb, the text messages, the video he made to recruit “brothers” to fight for the Islamic State, his invitation to one informant to come to his home on Stock Island — was that he was afraid after having met the men he believed were part of the extremist network.
“Convert to Muslim or be ready for the other world where you not [sic] going to be alive,” Suarez posted on Facebook on April 6. In another post baiting would-be terrorists, Suarez typed, “Kill our enemies and convert to Islam in the USA.”
He met three men who gave their names as Muhammad, Sharif and Omar who coaxed him through the bomb-making and weapons-buying processes.
“They are false words,” Suarez told prosecutors. “I felt threatened from the very moment Muhammad followed me to my apartment.”
To the left of Suarez were two tables filled with the government’s evidence, including the inert bomb Suarez bought and the backpack device it fits inside of, along with photos and paper bags and boxes of items.
“You’re good at making people believe things that aren’t true,” Gilbert suggested.
“No,” Suarez replied.
Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen