For years Chicago's El Rukns seemed like the average urban street gang, dabbling in racketeering, narcotics sales and the occasional murder. But El Rukns (Arabic for "the cornerstone") was far more ambitious than that. Last week a federal jury convicted five members of conspiring to commit terrorist acts against the U.S. The plotters, prosecutors said, expected to receive $2.5 million from Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi for bombing buildings and airplanes and assassinating American politicians. The verdict marked the first time American citizens had been found guilty of planning terrorist acts for a foreign government in return for money. The conspirators face prison terms ranging from 35 to 260 years.
The six-week trial offered a rare public view inside El Rukns' bizarre world. Founded as a street gang 24 years ago, the group promoted social activism in the late '60s. In the late '70s, the 100-member organization turned to political militancy and religion. The leader, Jeff Fort, 40, regularly presided over meetings from an immense, high-backed throne atop a pedestal, surrounded by outsize posters of himself and Gaddafi. Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan hailed El Rukns as his "divine warriors." In 1985 he invited the group to a Chicago rally featuring a live satellite broadcast in which Gaddafi urged blacks serving in the U.S. military to desert and join his forces. Last year El Rukns' "generals" produced a videotape pledging their allegiance to the Libyan strongman.
The Government built its case on more than 100 wiretapped telephone conversations in which El Rukns used a complicated code to discuss terrorist schemes. "The young friend" was a code name for Gaddafi, "the old man" meant Iran's Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini. "Apples" and "potatoes" referred to explosives.
Fort spoke directly to Libyan leaders. Though El Rukns never collected from Gaddafi or carried out any of its plots, it was well equipped to do so: on a raid of the gang's headquarters, lawmen found an arsenal that included an antitank device capable of downing an airplane or piercing 12-in.-thick steel plates.