Florida Keys

Where FBI sees terrorist, Keys family sees naive young man

Harlem Suarez came to the United States from Cuba as a young boy and struggled with the language, his mother says.
Harlem Suarez came to the United States from Cuba as a young boy and struggled with the language, his mother says.

On July 27, news spread quickly around the country that the FBI had just busted another home-grown terrorist inspired by Islamic extremists, this time a 23-year-old Cuban immigrant who bought a backpack “timer bomb” for $100 with plans to blow up, of all places, a sandy beach in Key West.

Residents and visitors of the tourist town were shocked — and relieved that the mastermind of such evil was caught in time and now behind bars, facing life in prison for attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.

The FBI touted the arrest as foiling another terrorist plot on U.S. soil. But for family, friends and past co-workers of the alleged terrorist, who lives with his parents in a modest apartment on nearby Stock Island, reaction was utter disbelief: “Harlem? A terrorist? No way.”

They say the Harlem Suarez they know is a non-confrontational, happy-go-lucky, hard worker who literally could not hurt even an ant and has the mental aptitude of about a 12-year-old.

He struggles with English and is easily manipulated, eager to please and believes just about everything he sees on TV or the Internet.

Zombies? He believes they are real. Ditto for vampires, werewolves and the blue Smurf comic characters.

He recently watched a show about God being celestial and misinterpreted it to mean God was an extraterrestrial, Suarez’s mother, Vilma Quintana Suarez, said in Spanish through an interpreter. She said she told him he was mixing up his English: “God is not an alien, son. God is the heavenly father. Son, don’t watch the news.”

Suarez’s recent flirtation with the rhetoric of Islamic terrorist organizations — including the existence of his Facebook page under the alias Almlak Benitez that featured postings of pro-ISIL videos with beheadings, according to the FBI — was a surprise to most of his family and friends.

But, they added, “Islamic State sympathizer” most likely was just another of Suarez’s harmless phases.

In the past couple of years he has gone through stages when he has wanted to be black, Mexican, Puerto Rican, a gangster, a vampire, a werewolf, a race boat driver and Key West’s drug kingpin.

“Everyone who knows Harlem knows how he is,” said ex-girlfriend Diane, who wanted her last name to remain anonymous. “Harlem can be anything in his mind. But what he is not is a terrorist or a criminal. He is all talk. And as my friend told the FBI agent, Harlem doesn’t have the balls to do it.”

For all of Suarez’s tough talk among friends, all he has to show on his rap sheet are 24 traffic violations, for offenses ranging from speeding to not wearing eyewear while driving one of his two red and white Yamaha motorcycles.

“He drives like a maniac and likes to do pop wheelies,” said another friend and co-worker, who asked not to be identified because he would lose his job. “He is like a kid and his motorcycles are his toys.”

On Thursday Suarez was indicted for allegedly attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempted provision of material support to a known terrorist group, for creation of an ISIL — also known as ISIS — recruiting video in a Homestead hotel. The second lesser offense is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Family and friends say the FBI took advantage of a gullible young man with a boy’s mentality, ensnaring him in a questionable counterterrorism sting operation in which undercover employees encouraged Suarez to concoct the plan and then provided him with the inert bomb. One angry family friend told TV reporters camped out in front of the Suarez apartment that the real criminals are in Miami wearing suits and ties.

Suarez’s lawyer, Richard Della Fera, is planning to have his client undergo extensive mental health evaluations.

On Tuesday, Bernardo Suarez and Quintana, his wife of 27 years, sat in Della Fera’s Fort Lauderdale office. Both looked tired. Quintana’s eyes were red from crying. And just a a few days earlier they learned that management at the apartment building where they have lived for 11 years won’t renew their lease when it comes due in October.

“They have agreed to do this because they want the public to know the son that they know,” Della Fera said.

The couple met in the mid-1980s at the transportation company they both worked for in Cuba.

After a slow courtship, they married with a simple ceremony. They lived in Cienfuegos, a city along the southern coast of Cuba.

In 1991, Quintana got pregnant with Harlem. She already had a daughter from a previous marriage. It was a difficult pregnancy, with extreme morning sickness that did not go away. She was advised to induce labor early because she could not keep food or water down, but did not, wanting the baby to be born full term.

Harlem was born blue, deprived of oxygen. He was taken from the clinic to a hospital, where he remained for three days. The parents believe this led to his slow mental development.

Quintana became protective of her son. “Maybe I was too overprotective,” she said crying.

In 2004, the mailman delivered a letter that would change their lives. They had won “el bombo,” the Cuban immigration lottery. They were one of about 20,000 lucky people from the Communist country who received permanent legal status to live in the United States. After a review and lots of paperwork, the family moved to Key West, where Quintana’s brother lived.

Harlem was 12 and did not know any English. He enrolled in Horace O’Bryant Elementary School. The new language did not come easily.

At Key West High School, girls flocked to him because of his good looks. “The women were attracted to him, drawn to him, but I am sad to say that the women told him the minute he opened his mouth he was a very immature young man,” Quintana said. Some girls took advantage of him, including one who accepted a $400 ring he bought her and then laughed about it.

Academically, he could not keep up and dropped out in 11th grade despite receiving extra help from a supportive teacher.

Suarez went to work at a string of low-paying jobs, always taking on extra shifts. Diane, his ex-girlfriend, said Suarez at one time held down four jobs simultaneously. For fun, he would ride and work on his motorcycles, hang out on his boat or cruise Duval Street, the main tourist drag of Key West, with friends.

For about 16 months, he worked at Key West International Airport for Envoy Air Inc., a subsidiary of American Airlines. He needed help filling out the application. But after passing a federal background check and a drug test, he landed the job, making $9.70 an hour doing a variety of jobs that included loading and unloading baggage, removing trash from airplanes, checking-in customers at the front desk and guiding planes away from the terminal as a “wing walker.”

He lost the job in March, a month before Suarez created the pro-Islamic extremist Facebook page, because of an incident in which he somehow deployed an emergency inflatable aircraft slide while cleaning a plane during the night shift, said Ted Lund, a former supervisor of Suarez at the airport.

After losing the airport job, Suarez went to work at a restaurant in Key West. The day before he was arrested, his mother said he called her from a gym workout all excited: “Look mom, this other kids is leaving and they are going to give me all his hours. I’m going to make more money that I ever have. Look dad, I am going to buy myself this car.”

The next day, while his mother was at the emergency room helping a friend, Suarez folded his clothes in his bedroom and then left to meet a man who had made him a timer bomb with a backpack, two boxes of galvanized nails and a cellphone that Suarez had provided a week earlier.

It was all part of a sting operation that began in early May, when an undercover FBI employee contacted Suarez to become Facebook friends.

In April, the FBI had received a report from the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office, which had got a tip about the Facebook page of Almlak Benitez that espoused extremist rhetoric and was recruiting people to join the Islamic State of Iraq and ISIL. Posts included: “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.”

The FBI also found that on the Facebook page under Harlem Suarez’s real name, his “likes” included “Jihadist,” “Extraordinary Prayer for ISIS, and “Prayers for ISIS: Weapons of our Warfare.”

While the FBI began investing Suarez as a potential terrorist, a good friend and former co-worker of Suarez, who did not wish to be identified because he would lose his job, said when he heard about Suarez’s desire to “join the Muslims,” he saw it as just another phase.

“He told me he wanted to be a Muslim so he could lose weight because he thought he was fat,” the friend said. “He must have seen a new diet that mentioned Muslims. But when I told him he couldn’t eat pork, which is a main part of a Cuban’s diet, he didn’t know that.”

Quintana, who wore a brown cross around her neck and raised her son Catholic, said that Suarez is “curious.”

Somehow, he went from wanting to be Muslim to lose weight to espousing hatred that his lawyer said was likely “cut and pasted” because his English is poor and he certainly does not know what “Caliphate” means.

Suarez also had an obsession with guns. The first time he tried to buy one, he was so nervous he dropped it on the display counter and broke the glass, one friend said. His attempt to buy an AK-47 fell through when he filled out paperwork wrong, according to the federal complaint.

Suarez did buy a Glock, according to Diane, who said he wanted it for protection because his sister had once been robbed in Miami. “And,” she added, “he wanted to be prepared for the zombie apocalypse. He also wanted us to buy canned food so when the world ends, we will have something to eat.”

Diane said she knew of only one time he fired the gun, at a driving range.

After watching a YouTube skit involving President Barack Obama declaring martial law and all of California taking up arms against the government, he told another friend they had to start getting weapons ready. “He didn’t understand it was not real,” his friend said.

Just as his mother could not convince him that the show that depicted vampires in Pennsylvania was “a lie.” She said after watching vampire or zombie shows, he would be so scared at night that he would have nightmares.

When he wanted to be black, he grew out his hair to make dreadlocks and bought a gold grill for his teeth.

Friends and family have many stories about Suarez’s inability to hurt anything. His father said his son can’t even scale a fish and his mother said one time she swatted away an ant that was carrying a crumb and her son got upset. “He said that ant was working so hard to get that crumb of food.”

Friends say he once saved an injured pigeon and took it to the animal shelter for treatment and never shot at iguanas or got involved in cockfights, as many young men have done living in Key West.

So they couldn’t believe he really meant any of the violent things he told FBI undercover employees or wrote on the Internet, including: “One day I will cook American” … “In cages” … “Flaming.”

Suarez put on a black tactical vest, black shirt, black face mask and a yellow and black scarf to record the ISIL recruitment video, the federal complaint stated.

Suarez also talked about testing the bomb to make sure it works — in the open garage under his own apartment, the complaint said.

Two months into the sting operation, the undercover employee asked Suarez whether he was “playing games or whether he was true to the Islamic State.”

“If you know Harlem, it’s like leading a little kid to a van for candy,” said Suarez’s friend, who asked not to be identified because he would lose his job at the airport. “He couldn’t build a bomb himself. He is not that smart. Deep down, I know he would have never done anything.”

But on July 27, Suarez got into a car with the undercover employee who had brought him the backpack timer bomb and showed him how to detonate the bomb. When Suarez got out, agents swarmed.

Miami Herald writer Jennifer Luna and researcher Monica Leal contributed to this report.

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