Cherry Hill jihadis worshipped and did roof work at Philly's Al Aqsa mosque
May 9, 2007
In Large Immigrant Family, Religion Guided Three in Fort Dix PlotKAREEM FAHIM and ANDREA ELLIOTT
PHILADELPHIA, May 9 The three Duka brothers Eljvir, Shain and Dritan not only prayed here at the Al Aqsa Islamic Center, but also recently began repairing its roof.
The work came naturally to them, as members of a large family of ethnic Albanian immigrants who own more than a dozen roofing companies in New York and New Jersey. They fixed the roof free of charge, encouraged by their imam to do good deeds. One congregant said the men were storing up credit for "the afterlife."
But the job remains half finished after the brothers and three other Muslim men were taken into custody this week, charged with plotting a terrorist attack against soldiers at the Fort Dix military reservation. Their arrests reverberated through the extended Duka dynasty, from southern New Jersey to the village of Debar, in Macedonia, the family's ancestral home.
"It's fine to be a religion man," said Murat Duka, 55, a distant relative of the defendants who was the first of the Dukas now numbering about 200 to move to the Northeast and work as a roofer. "But if you get too much to the religion, you get out of your mind and you do stupid things."
More than 4,600 miles away is Debar, a village near the Albanian border, where the influence of American émigrés is seen in restaurants named Manhattan, Dallas and Miami. In Debar, Elez Duka, a first cousin of the three suspects, expressed disbelief Wednesday that they could be involved in a scheme inspired by Islamic radicals.
"This has to be political propaganda," said Mr. Duka, 29, who recently opened an Internet cafe there with money sent by his own brothers in America. "America has always helped us."
One day after the men were arraigned in United States District Court in Camden, a portrait is emerging of the five who face charges of conspiring to kill American military personnel, which could send them to prison for life. Much less is known about the sixth, Agron Abdullahu, 24, who the authorities say was a sniper in Kosovo but who faces lesser charges, carrying up to 10 years.
Serdar Tatar, 23, a Turkish immigrant who lives in Philadelphia, had grown so religious over the last two years that his father, Muslim Tatar, said they had become estranged. Serdar's Russian-born wife, who is pregnant with twins, said he was so busy working that he rarely went to the mosque, but sometimes read the Koran and helped her 11-year-old son with his homework.
Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer, 22, a Palestinian born in Amman, Jordan, had for the last year kept up an exhausting routine of work, sleep and prayer, according to his mother. He drove a cab at night in Philadelphia, had recently dropped out of Camden County Community College to help the family pay two mortgages and attended services occasionally at the Al-Aqsa center.
And there were the Dukas, ages 23, 26 and 28, who came to this country illegally, more than a decade ago. The brothers, like many of their relatives and fellow ethnic Albanian immigrants in the area, have worked in roofing, coming to own two companies, in addition to a pizzeria. They are not from an Arabic-speaking nation though one is married to a woman from Jordan but they sometimes used Arabic names for their roofing businesses: Qadr, which in Arabic means destiny, and Inshala, an unusual spelling for a commonplace expression that means "if God wills it."
It is not fully known how the Dukas met the other defendants, but their lives began to intersect as early as 1999, when Mr. Tatar, Mr. Shnewer and Eljvir Duka, known as Elvis, were all enrolled at Cherry Hill West High School.
One of Mr. Shnewer's five sisters married Eljvir Duka and is now pregnant. On Wednesday, Lamese and Israa Shnewer, ages 12 and 14, stood in the threshold of their house in Cherry Hill, holding tabloid newspapers with their brother's picture splashed across the front. Cars slowed down as they passed. People snapped pictures with their cellphones.
Israa pointed to a neighbor's house and said, "They hated us to begin with."
The criminal complaint filed against the suspects on Tuesday portrayed Mr. Shnewer as the leader of the group, speaking most frequently in taped conversations about tactics. But his mother, Faten Shnewer, said in an interview that the charges "made no sense."
She said that televised images from the war in Iraq had angered him, and wondered whether, while he was watching the news, he had said something that was misinterpreted by the authorities. When the authorities searched the family's home, they took a Koran, along with the mortgage bills and other household items, Mrs. Shnewer said.
"He's a good boy," she said as she stood in the doorway of a relative's home. "I'm proud of who we are."
Co-workers and relatives described him as shy with a sweet nature. "Mohamad was like a teddy bear," said Jaime Antrim, the manager of a restaurant in Marlton, where Mr. Shnewer once worked. He showed his religious devotion in some ways he would not eat pizza cut with a knife that had come into contact with pork but also served alcohol and did not break for the daily Muslim prayers.
Muslim Tatar, who owns SuperMario's Pizza near Fort Dix, from which the authorities say his son Serdar took a map of the base, said that the young man had gravitated to radical Islam in recent years, prompting a rift between them.
"I'm not a religious person," Muslim Tatar said. "I don't want my son to be a religious person, but he was a religious person."
The family came to America from Turkey in 1992, settling in Cherry Hill. Muslim Tatar said that his son fell in with the wrong crowd when he met some of the other suspects in high school. On at least one occasion, Mr. Tatar said, his son brought one of them to his pizza parlor in Cookstown, N.J.
"I told him, I don't like this kid, I don't want you together,' " Mr. Tatar recalled Wednesday.
Though the criminal complaint says that Serdar Tatar became familiar with Fort Dix from delivering pizzas on the base and procured the map last November, his wife said he had not worked at the restaurant in more than a year, and his father said SuperMario's has been delivering to the base only for three months.
"Nobody take map," the elder Mr. Tatar said.
After quitting SuperMario's to gain some independence, Serdar Tatar went to work at 7-Eleven, and recently became manager of one of the chain's stores near the Temple University campus in Philadelphia, said his wife of a year, Khalida Mirzhyeiva. He worked long shifts, she said, and rarely went to the mosque.
"He planned to have a child and a good family," Ms. Mirzhyeiva, 29, said in a telephone interview, which was translated from her native Russian by a neighbor. "He did not plan to kill anybody."
"He isn't a terrorist," she added. "He follows his religion, the Muslim religion, and he cannot kill."
Dritan, Eljvir and Shain Duka were all born in Debar, Macedonia, like many of their relatives.
The extended family's trek to America began with Murat Duka, who opened a roofing company in New York, in 1980, five years after he came to the United States. Starting in 1985, a stream of relatives began going to Brooklyn, where some learned the roofing trade from him, he said.
Today, 40 to 50 families related to the Dukas of Debar live in New York and New Jersey. Many of them settled on Staten Island, which is home to a thriving mosque for Albanians.
"Everybody's shocked from this," said Ferid Bedrolli, the imam of the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center on Staten Island, where the three Duka defendants and their father used to pray before moving to Cherry Hill from Brooklyn in the late 1990s. "They didn't look like really they are bad people."
Another imam at the mosque, Tahir Kukigi, described the father of the defendants as a "simple man" and said the family "never had any conflicts with anyone."
At the mosque in Philadelphia, the imam, Mohammed Shehata, declined an interview but his mosque released a statement.
"We have constantly urged our community members to report, either to us or to law enforcement, any suspicious incidents," it read. "Had we noticed anything about these individuals that would have aroused suspicions, I can assure you that it would have been reported."
Experts on Albania and the Albanian-American community said they were surprised at the ethnicity of the suspects.
Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch said, "Albanians on the whole are so very over-the-top pro-American that this news came as a shock."
The 1999 American-led bombing of Serbia resulted in de facto independence for Kosovo, a majority Albanian province in Serbia that had been the scene of brutal repression by the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. One of the main thoroughfares in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, was renamed "Bill Clinton Boulevard."
In Macedonia, Argitim Fida, mayor of the Dukas' home village, said that on Sept. 11, 2001, students had a candlelight vigil in the town's main square. The town council in Debar, which has a population of about 15,000, set a special meeting for Thursday to discuss how to respond to the arrests.
"If Albanians are traditionally pro-American, we in Debar have to be more pro-American than anyone," Mayor Fida said. "Almost every family here has relatives living in the United States."
The Dukas are typical of those who have thrived from such ties: 28 of 37 local family members live in America now.
The suspects' grandmother and matriarch of the family, Naze Duka, said she visited her sons and grandsons in New Jersey last October, and said she received $7,000 this month to put a deposit down on a new house.
"I have no idea where this came from," Mrs. Duka, 89, said Wednesday. "I don't know what could have happened. I just don't know."
Stacy Sullivan, the author of a book on Albanian-Americans, said that a handful of Islamic hardliners arrived in Kosovo after the American intervention and attempted to spread radical Islam. She said they found little, if any, interest and that Albanians derisively dubbed them the "pajama people," a reference to their traditional clothes.
Two Albanian-born businessmen in New York with ties to the Duka family said that an uncle of the defendants became a radicalized Muslim in the early 1990s after serving a prison sentence in New York State.
The parents and uncle of the Duka defendants could not be reached for comment.
Murat Duka, who said he knows the three brothers' father, Ferik, was stunned that any of the Dukas could be involved in such activity.
"From the town we come, we're not a religious people," he said.
Told that the three brothers had been repairing the roof of the Philadelphia mosque, Murat Duka said he had done the same at local mosques and churches, and had also donated money to synagogues. "You've got to donate because you don't know next life which one is the true story," he said. "So you've got to be balanced."
Kareem Fahim reported from Philadelphia and Cherry Hill, N.J., and Andrea Elliott from New York. Reporting was contributed by Richard G. Jones in Cookstown, N.J.; Sewell Chan, David Rohde and Maureen Seaberg in New York; Nate Schweber in Philadelphia; Ethan Wilensky-Lanford in Cherry Hill; and Nicholas Wood in Macedonia.