Witnesses recount chaos inside Dolphin Mall after active shooter scare
This fall, a Miami man was trashing the U.S. government and its anti-terrorist actions around the world while a confidential informant listened to his every word.
Vicente A. Solano told the informant that he wanted to carry out a terrorist attack at a crowded Miami-Dade mall on Black Friday, the big Christmas shopping day after Thanksgiving, according to federal authorities. The informant said he could introduce Solano to someone who could assist him but he needed proof that his intentions were for real.
Solano texted the informant three videos that featured a man wearing a black mask and shirt, standing in front of a black flag identical to one used by the Islamic State terrorist group, according to a federal criminal complaint.
And thus began an FBI undercover operation targeting Solano, who was arrested by agents at the Dolphin Mall on Friday night on a charge of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction in the food court at the sprawling shopping center in Sweetwater. Solano, 53, made his first appearance in Miami federal court on Monday afternoon, describing himself as a painter who makes $13 an hour and has no savings. Solano, a Honduran citizen, has a minor criminal history.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Gilbert is seeking detention for Solano, who has a hearing on that issue Thursday.
Despite his professed loyalty to the Islamic State, there is no evidence suggesting that ISIS representatives directed Solano to carry out the mall bombing.
In one of the videos, Solano spoke in Spanish, saying: “I am here because I like the way that ISIS confronts the United States and the countries of the coalition. They’re strong. It’s a group that is growing in social media. I love that there is going to be a holy war....
“The United States is the most terrorist country of them all,” Solano continued. “It invades when it wants to and when it’s convenient for them. That is why I am joining the Islamic group, the holy war, in the name of Allah, of our leader Abu.”
In other parts of the videos, Solano mentioned the 2013 deadly terrorist bombing at the Boston Marathon and a 2015 sting operation in Key West, where Harlem Suarez tried to set off a bomb at a public beach. The bomb was “inert,” provided to him by FBI undercover operatives — just as in the latest Dolphin Mall sting.
Solano made the three ISIS propaganda videos in his room and kept a sketch of a bomb diagram. He told the informant in late September that he wanted to “set off a bomb and [had] the balls to do it.”
The FBI deployed not only the informant but also two undercover employees to interact with Solano and help him assemble an inert bomb that he was led to believe could be detonated with a cellphone. They all met at his apartment, a local hotel, in their vehicles, at parking lots and at the “specified mall,” which is not named in the FBI affidavit but the Miami Herald learned is the Dolphin Mall.
“What I want to achieve is to send a message,” Solano was recorded saying on Oct. 13, one week before he allegedly attempted the mall bombing. “Because I have wanted to do it, because I have resentment inside, to demonstrate to [the United States].”
Solano discussed buying materials for a pressure cooker bomb, placing it in luggage and detonating the device at a food court with a cellphone, the affidavit said. He further discussed making a sketch of the targeted area, wearing a disguise and hiding the bomb in a shopping bag.
Solano went to a hardware store to buy screws and other materials for making a bomb. One of the FBI undercover employees also purchased items for the device.
Solano met up with the two FBI operatives at a hotel to put the bomb together — not realizing that “the device was inert and could never actually explode,” the affidavit said. “While in the hotel room, Solano practiced arming the device.”
Solano left the hotel room with one of the FBI employees and together they drove to the Dolphin Mall on Friday night.
“When they arrived at the mall, Solano took the steps that he believed would arm the device and the timer began to count down,” the affidavit said. “Solano exited [the undercover employee’s] vehicle and began to walk towards the previously determined mall entrance.
“Solano was taken into custody prior to entering the specified mall.”
The alleged bombing attempt was unrelated to a false report of an active shooter at the Dolphin Mall in August, when the shopping complex and surrounding neighborhood turned into a chaotic scene because of mistaken gunfire. The incident drew several police agencies to the incident.
The FBI’s undercover operations, such as the Dolphin Mall case, have become textbook procedures in the post-9/11 era. Agents rely on confidential informants to bring them suspicious information, so they can engage a suspect plotting to use a WMD and thwart the plan before it is carried out. Informants routinely work with undercover agents and employees while recording conversations with the suspect.
In recent years, the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami has obtained convictions against Suarez, the Key West man who plotted to blow up the sham bomb while supporting a foreign terrorist organization, and James Medina, a Hollywood man who tried to bomb a synagogue in Aventura. Suarez, 25, was sentenced to life in prison. Medina, 41, faces a 25-year prison term at his sentencing in November.