Florida Keys

FBI: Key West man charged with trying to use backpack bomb in terror plot

Harlem Suarez, who also went by Almlak Benitez online, is shown taking a selfie on his Facebook page. The FBI arrested him this week on a terrorism charge.
Harlem Suarez, who also went by Almlak Benitez online, is shown taking a selfie on his Facebook page. The FBI arrested him this week on a terrorism charge. Facebook

In April, the FBI got a tip from someone who had received a Facebook friend request from a person by the name of “Almlak Benitez.”

Benitez wrote that he wanted to recruit the “friend” for a U.S.-designated terrorist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — notorious for its videotaped beheadings of kidnapped journalists and aid workers in the Middle East.

FBI agents took one look at Benitez’s Facebook page — with postings such as “We are the islamic state. We are isis Muslims” — and directed an undercover operation that would lead to Monday’s arrest of a 23-year-old Key West man whose real name is Harlem Suarez.

Suarez, aka “Almlak Benitez,” was charged with trying to use a backpack bomb in a planned explosion on a public beach in Key West, but he also allegedly discussed carrying out a terrorist-style attack in Marathon or Miami Beach on the Fourth of July, according to the FBI.

On Tuesday, Suarez was charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, an offense that carries a potential sentence of up to life in prison, the U.S. attorney’s office said. Suarez, who lives with his parents in an apartment on Stock Island, faced a federal magistrate judge in Miami. He is being held in federal detention and will have a hearing next Monday, when his defense attorneys will ask for his release on bond before trial.

His attorneys, Richard Della Fera and Josh Entin, declined to comment about the case. In a statement, they said: “It appears Harlem may be a troubled and confused young man but he is certainly not a terrorist.

“He comes from a very good, hard-working family that arrived here from Cuba in 2004 because they yearned for freedom. They raised their son to love this country.”

That assertion contrasts sharply with the portrayal of Suarez in a 15-page criminal complaint and affidavit. FBI agents examined the two Facebook accounts of Suarez and his alias — noting “extremist” pro-terrorist postings.

The complaint states: “Review of the publicly-accessible portion of the Harlem Suarez Facebook page revealed Suarez claimed to be from Key West, Florida, and listed his ‘likes’ as: ‘Jihadist,’ ‘Extraordinary Prayer for ISIS,’ and ‘Prayers for ISIS: Weapons of our Warfare.’ ”

Agents arranged for a confidential source to interact with Suarez online, by text message, by cellphone and in person.

In May, “the source and Suarez had a private Facebook chat on the subject of preparing for a violent jihad against the United States,” the complaint said. During the same chat, Suarez indicated he wanted to make a “timer bomb.”

They also exchanged text messages. “Do you know how to make bmb,” Suarez asked the source. He asked Suarez if he wanted one. “Yes, I want to learn how to make a controller bomb,” Suarez responded.

In June, the source introduced Suarez to an undercover FBI employee “as a member of ISIL who could supply explosive devices,” the complaint said.

During this same meeting, “Suarez discussed wanting to conduct a terrorist-style attack on or about July 4th, possibly in Marathon, Florida, or on South Beach in Miami Beach, Florida, or both,” the complaint added.

In a recorded phone conversation in July, the source asked Suarez “whether he was playing games or whether he was true to the Islamic state,” the complaint said. Suarez’s response: “I’m not playing no games.”

Eventually, Suarez purchased parts for the explosive device, which was designed to contain galvanized nails. He intended to conceal it in a backpack and remotely detonate it by a cellular telephone, the complaint said.

Suarez planned to bury the device at a Key West beach and then detonate it, according to the complaint.

Last week, Suarez rode his white scooter to a meeting with the confidential source to deliver the materials to make the backpack bomb. He also gave the source $100 to pay for its construction by an FBI undercover associate. On Monday, Suarez and the source met in the undercover FBI associate’s car. The associate showed Suarez how to operate the explosive device, which was inert and could not be detonated.

After Suarez exited the associate’s car, FBI agents arrested him.

In another part of the criminal complaint, the FBI source and Suarez made a recruitment video for ISIL at a Homestead motel.

“In the motel room, Suarez put on a black tactical vest, black shirt, black face mask and a yellow and black scarf,” the complaint said. Suarez pledged his allegiance to the terrorist organization and also said his Muslim brothers needed “to buy AK’s, knives and machetes” for jihad.

Miami Herald news partner CBS4 reported that Suarez attended Key West High School but did not graduate and that he works in a restaurant. His mother is a maid and his father drives a truck, the station reported.

Federal officials said Tuesday that stopping attacks on the United States — whether inspired or directed by foreign terrorist organizations — is the Justice Department’s top priority. Authorities did not say whether Suarez had been in direct contact with ISIL or was simply a lone wolf.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office, in collaboration with the FBI, works tirelessly to advance this mission by continuing to thwart home-grown acts of terrorism,” U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said in a statement.

“There is no room for failure when it comes to investigating the potential use of a weapon of mass destruction,” said George Piro, special agent in charge of the FBI in Miami, who commended the Joint Terrorism Task Force under his authority.

The Suarez investigation is the second ISIL-related case to be prosecuted in South Florida.

On Monday, a Miami resident who allegedly expressed a willingness to act as an urban sniper and kill civilians for the terrorist group was sentenced to 10 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to illegal arms possession.

Miguel Morán Díaz, 46, appearing before U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard, had pleaded guilty to the gun charges in June.

Nowhere in the guilty plea agreement nor related court documents is Díaz linked to his sympathies for ISIL. The only reference is to charges in an indictment in which Díaz was not supposed to possess any weapons because he is a convicted felon.

His sentencing closed the final chapter in a case that drew national headlines when it first emerged in Miami federal court documents in early April.

Like the Suarez probe, the Diaz investigation began in January when FBI agents discovered a Facebook page in which he called himself Azizi al Hariri.

Related stories from Miami Herald