Muslim terror plotters "hiding in plain sight neighbors and relatives "shocked" by arrests of "bunch of regular guys" kin involved
May 9, 2007
EVIL HID IN PLAIN SIGHT
'PLOTTERS' BLENDED IN LIKE BUNCH OF REGULAR GUYS
May 9, 2007 -- From all appearances, they seemed like typical immigrants - knock-around guys who moved to southern New Jersey as children and were struggling to live the American dream.
But hiding behind the unremarkable facade, the group of six young men had embraced extremist Islam and allegedly were hatching a shocking scheme to kill as many U.S. soldiers as possible "in the name of Allah."
As the truth came out yesterday, neighbors in the working-class suburbs of Philadelphia, where most of the alleged plotters worked and lived, were stunned to discover they had been living with accused terrorists in plain sight.
While some of the alleged plotters came from religious families, others did not. Most were friendly with neighbors but generally kept to themselves.
"You wouldn't think this is something they would be capable of doing. They went to work every day and they came home," said Michael Levine, 38, who lives in Cherry Hill, two doors down from the three illegal-immigrant brothers, Dritan Duka, 28, Eljvir Duka, 23, and Shain Duka, 26, who were charged in the plot.
"When I found out. . . my heart stopped," he added.
David Jonathon, 24, who went to school with the younger two brothers, said he remembered them as being petty marijuana dealers when they attended Cherry Hill West HS. But when he ran into Eljvir after graduation, the suspect talked of a religious conversion.
"He talked about converting to Islam. He was trying to get me to go with him. He was saying he just felt closer to God when he was praying to Allah. He said it brought him closer to God," Jonathon said.
It was quite a change from the kid he knew in high school, Jonathon said:
"He was high strung, always arrogant and narcissistic about himself. He was stocky and muscular and always wore a wife-beater T-shirt. He was always flexing his muscles."
The Dukas, who are ethnic Albanians, moved to the United States more than a decade ago and once owned a pizzeria in Turnersville, about 35 miles from Fort Dix. They sold it in 2005 to Tony Giordano, who now operates it as Tony Sopranos Pizza.
Giordano called the pizzeria a "filthy rat trap" before he remodeled it.
The Duka brothers kept a garden and would give vegetables to neighbors. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan this year, the Dukas moved a sheep into their yard, but took it to a butcher when neighbors complained.
Recently, Levine said, he noticed a silver sedan parked down the street from the Duka home with two men in the front seat. When he called police, they told him the men were there for a reason and he shouldn't worry about it.
The Duka home was large, housing about 14 people. And then two months ago, Levine said, the women and children moved away, for no apparent reason.
At his arraignment, Dritan Duka's American wife of five years and mother of his five children, Jennifer Marino, 26, came to the family's defense.
"They're good people," she said. "He's always home or working. He would never had time to do this," she said, sobbing hysterically.
Outside Fort Dix, where suspect Serdar Tatar's father operated Super Mario's Pizza in Cookstown, which officials believe gave the alleged terrorist intimate knowledge of the base's layout, former employees said the young man was "really intense" and very religious.
"The only thing that I ever noticed is that he just prayed a lot," said one-time employee Mario Tumillo.
Tatar, 23, originally from Turkey, moved to this country seven years ago and is a legal resident. He lived in Philadelphia with his four-months-pregnant wife, Khalida Mirzayeva, and most recently worked at a 7-Eleven, authorities said.
Mirzayeva, a Russian refugee who married Tatar a year ago, said she could not believe he was involved in terrorism.
"I know he is not a terrorist," she said. "I know. I know my husband. He is not a terrorist."
Another Super Mario's employee, Joseph Hofflinger, said Tatar always wore Western clothes, as did his wife.
"He seemed like a regular person," Hofflinger said. "Nothing extravagant."
Tatar's father, Muslim Tatar, was not religious at all, and was deeply distraught.
A neighbor of Tatar's in Philadelphia described him as "a perfect gentleman" and said he must have gotten involved with the wrong people.
"Maybe they took him because he has friends," said Stacie Gandlina. "His relatives didn't want him to stay with his friends."
Gandlina also said she tried to console Tatar's in-laws after the arrest.
"I said, 'If he is nice, they will let him go. If he is bad, why do you need a bad son-in-law? They have to check," she said.
At the Cherry Hill home of suspect Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer, 22, neighbors said the family was religious and the women who lived there wore headscarves.
"They kept to themselves. They would smile and wave like any other neighbors," said Kurt Fritz, who lived next door. "It kind of freaks me out. The whole thing seems ludicrous. He seemed like any other teenaged or post-teenaged kid."
Born in Jordan, Shnewer moved to the United States at age 3 and is a naturalized citizen. He and his father split time driving a taxi in Philadelphia.
Agron Abdullahu, 24, lived in Williamstown, N.J., and worked most recently at a Shop-Rite supermarket.
A legal U.S. resident, Abdullahu had worked as a bakery supervisor since emigrating from Kosovo in 1999, said his cousin, Arsim Abdullahu.
Arsim said he had last spoken to his cousin seven months ago and hadn't seen him in about five years, but had never seen or heard anything that would lead him to believe Agron was capable of terrorism.
Arsim also said if the charges are proven, Agron should be held responsible.
"We have a law here," Arsim said. "The law should take care of him."
Additional reporting by Austin Fenner in Philadelphia