BY CURT ANDERSON
MIAMI (AP) — A judge imposed a life prison sentence Tuesday on a man convicted of plotting with an FBI informant to set off a nail-filled backpack bomb on a Florida Keys beach in solidarity with the Islamic State group.
The attorney for Harlem Suarez had sought a more lenient sentence, but U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez agreed with prosecutors that the plot deserved the maximum. Suarez, 25, was convicted by a Key West jury in January of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and providing material support to a terrorist organization.
“The government was extremely fortunate in this case that (agents) were able to ferret out the defendant’s true intentions and monitor his every move,” Assistant U.S. Attorneys Karen Gilbert and Marc Anton said in court papers. “This crime is as serious as it gets.”
Suarez got a life sentence on the weapon of mass destruction charge and 20 years on the material support conviction.
According to trial evidence, Suarez began posting Facebook messages in April 2015 expressing allegiance to the Islamic State and seeking to recruit new followers for the extremist group. He also researched bomb-making instructions. These online actions led the FBI to have informants make contact with Suarez, even though there is no evidence the Cuban-American man had actual Islamic State connections.
Still, the prosecutors said Suarez posted pro-Islamic State videos online and also bought a number of weapons, including two handguns, magazines, bulletproof vests, an AR-15 rifle and had attempted to buy an AK-47 assault weapon. The plot to set off the bomb on a Key West beach developed in conversations with the FBI informants, evidence showed.
Testimony also showed Suarez believed the backpack bomb would contain galvanized nails and could be detonated remotely with a cellphone. The informant said he could get the explosive material to add to those ingredients.
“I can go to the beach at the night time, put the thing in the sand, cover it up, so the next day I just call and the thing is gonna, is gonna make, a real hard noise from nowhere,” Suarez told an informant in a recorded call.
Suarez was arrested in July 2015 after accepting an inert explosive from an FBI employee posing as an Islamic State extremist. He went to trial even though prosecutors offered him a chance to plead guilty to only the material support charge, which carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence.
Defense attorney Richard Della Fera said Suarez was pressured by his parents not to plead guilty, even telling his mother in a monitored jail phone call he thought it was impossible to win the case.
“His mother again forcefully interjects, telling him not to think that way and to read his Bible and have faith in God,” Della Fera said in court papers.
Della Fera also sought a more lenient sentence based on Suarez’s lack of criminal history and psychological issues that made him susceptible to the Islamic State rhetoric.
“As one who is gullible and easily led, he was easy prey for the informants who appealed to his ego and his need for validation,” the attorney said, adding that Suarez “was obviously looking for something to belong to.”
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