Fort Dix plotter Serdar Tatar applied to become Philly police officer weeks before planned attack
May 27, 2007
MIM:Tartar applied to join the police both in Philadelphia and Orlando. He also said he wanted to join the army "to kill soldiers from the inside". He is not the first aspiring terrorist to attempt to join the police. One of 2 brothers who were accused of trying to assemble a chemical bomb in the UK had tried to join the police weeks before his arrest. After being released Abdul Koyair was rearrested on child pornography charges. He also had a rap sheet.
De tot de islam bekeerde ex-politiebeambte Martine van den O. is blond en komt uit Naaldwijk. Ze werd samen met het vermoedelijke Hofstadlid Nouredine El F. (22) en Soumaia (21) op 22 juni in Amsterdam opgepakt. Volgens bronnen uit radicaal islamitische kringen. kwam ze vaak in de Haagse As Soennah-moskee.
Experts: Dix plot's suspects exemplify a growing concern
They were roofers, a taxi driver, a baker and a pizza deliveryman, apparently living the American dream in Philadelphia and on the tree-lined streets of suburban South Jersey.
Appearances can be deceiving.
Federal authorities say the men, now referred to as the Fort Dix Six, were actually would-be terrorists bent on acquiring assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other arms with hopes of using them to massacre unsuspecting soldiers at Fort Dix.
The alleged plot was ultimately uncovered, and the six suspects are now behind bars awaiting trial on charges of conspiring to kill soldiers and related weapons offenses. But the aftermath of the failed terror scheme has awakened many Americans to a chilling possibility: There could be terrorists living among us, not only in the inner cities but also in the suburbs.
Maybe even next door.
"Frankly, it's a growing concern both here and in many other countries," said University of California professor Michael Nacht, an expert on terrorism and national security. "Militant Islamic extremists are proliferating, not in an organized or structured manner, but spontaneously and within our own borders."
The word "within" is key here, Nacht said. The Fort Dix suspects may have been foreign-born, but authorities say they have uncovered no evidence that the six men came to the United States with terrorist sympathies or intentions to do harm. There is also no evidence that the men had direct contact with international terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida.
Instead, experts point to this case as an example of "homegrown terrorism" involving people who have been living in the United States.
"There are many different examples of independent terrorist groups popping up," Nacht said. "Most are disillusioned Muslim men who feel the call to jihad (holy war) is justified and feel religiously that they are obligated to take action to kill people."
How the six men charged in connection with the Fort Dix plot became indoctrinated is unclear, especially given that some of them are ethnic Albanians, a group that traditionally has displayed little, if any, ill will toward the United States.
In fact, one suspect, Agron Abdullahu, 24, of Buena Vista, Atlantic County, was one of about 4,000 refugees who were flown to the United States and given sanctuary at Fort Dix during the Serbian-Kosovo war in the former Yugoslavia.
The other suspects are Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer, 22, of Cherry Hill; Eljvir Duka, 23, of Cherry Hill; Dritan Duka, 28, of Cherry Hill; Shain Duka, 26, of Cherry Hill; and Serdar Tatar, 23, of Philadelphia.
Shnewer, Tatar and the Duka brothers were charged with conspiring to kill U.S. soldiers. The Dukas also were charged with being illegal aliens in possession of firearms.
Those five suspects face up to life in prison if convicted, authorities said.
How did these men learn to develop hate for their adopted homeland and its military? Federal authorities and court papers indicate members of the group often watched terrorist recruiting and training videos, including one that showed Osama bin Laden making speeches and another that showed a terrorist attack on U.S. Marines.
The Internet, as well as the Middle Eastern-based Al Jazeera cable television network, can be a powerful tools used for Islamic terrorist groups and fanatical clerics to spread propaganda and inspire would-be terrorists to action, according to experts. However, experts say propaganda alone is rarely enough to drive people to terrorism.
"There are a lot of different sources, but personal contact is usually important," said Theodore Goertzel, a professor of sociology and criminology at Rutgers University's campus in Camden. "Usually there's some type of social network such as mosques or social clubs involved where angry or unhappy people can meet and interact. This is a social movement."
Muslim leaders have said several of the suspects attended prayer services at the Islamic Center of South Jersey, but they said there were never any indications of a conspiracy to attack and kill U.S. soldiers.
"They came across as very polite and very respectful," Zia Rahman, managing director of the Muslim American Community Association in Voorhees, Camden County, said Wednesday after learning of the arrests. "I could not believe that they could be involved in this. If it's true, I condemn it."
Goertzel and Nacht stressed that only a relatively small number of Muslims have become indoctrinated in the radical jihadist movement. Unfortunately, small numbers can also be lethal, especially with the availability of firearms both here and overseas.
Homegrown terrorists are also the most difficult to detect, experts said.
Shnewer was a cab driver in Philadelphia. Abdullahu worked at the ShopRite supermarket in Williamstown. The Duka brothers were illegal aliens who attended Cherry Hill West High School and then operated a roofing business. Tatar worked as a pizza deliveryman for his family's restaurant in New Hanover and delivered pizzas on nearby Fort Dix. Before his arrest Monday night, Tatar worked as a clerk at a 7-Eleven in Philadelphia.
Several neighbors of the suspects have said they noticed nothing unusual about the men and how they lived.
Nacht said the suspects' ability to blend is not surprising.
"In a homogeneous country of 325 million people, detecting these types of cells can be very difficult," Nacht said.
A lack of training or funding by homegrown terror cells can result in foolish mistakes.
In the Fort Dix case, authorities said they began investigating the six suspects after a clerk at the Circuit City store on Nixon Drive in Mount Laurel alerted police to a "disturbing video" he had been asked to copy to DVD.
The video showed 10 men, including all six suspects, shooting assault weapons at a firing range earlier that month. The group also called for a jihad and shouted "Allah Akbar," Arabic for "God is great."
Law enforcement officials said tips like that one are crucial in detecting and stopping homegrown terrorist cells.
"There is not much you can do to prevent (terrorism) other than to have the public (be aware)," Burlington County Prosecutor Robert D. Bernardi said Friday. "Since Sept. 11, there's been a general relaxation of concern by the public, and that's something we can't afford to do. Vigilance is the key.
"This is a classic example of what a citizen can do with information that otherwise would not have come to the attention of law enforcement," Bernardi said.
A radical shift in reputation for 6 men
The Fort Dix suspects were "just regular boys," working and friendly, to friends and neighbors who knew them.
By George Anastasia
Inquirer Staff Writer
MICHAEL PEREZ / Inquirer Staff Photographer
The Al-Aqsa Islamic Society Mosque in North Philadelphia. The Duka brothers did free roofing there, but a spokesman said they seldom had attended prayers.
They were twentysomethings who played video games, surfed the Internet, and shot one another with paintball guns.
Friends described them as polite and hard-working sons of immigrants who came to this country in the last two decades to find a better life.
Relatives, the few who would talk, said they were "good boys."
Federal authorities say they are terrorists.
Arrested Monday in what prosecutors said was a plot to attack soldiers at Fort Dix, the six suspects were ordered held without bail after individual detention hearings Friday in U.S. District Court in Camden.
A 27-page FBI affidavit filed at the time of the arrests provides the government's account of what they allegedly intended to do.
More difficult to determine is who they really are and why they may have wanted to do it.
"These were young people who came to this country, but who developed an empathy toward the ideology of al-Qaeda," said Chief Inspector Joseph E. O'Connor, head of the Philadelphia Police Department's counterterrorism bureau.
O'Connor's assessment was based on information gathered by nearly a dozen law enforcement agencies during a 16-month investigation into what New Jersey authorities described as a homegrown radical Islamist plot.
It is decidedly at odds with many of the descriptions provided by friends, neighbors and fellow workers of the six suspects.
"They were just regular boys flirting with girls," said Hydee Rentas, 23, of Pennsauken, recounting her experience growing up with two of the suspects, brothers Shain and Eljvir Duka, who at one time worked in a pizzeria in her neighborhood.
"They were funny," added Anna Gonzalez, 19, also of Pennsauken. "I would never have expected this . . . not in a million years."
In addition to Shain Duka, 26, and Eljvir "Elvis" Duka, 23, arrested last week were their brother Dritan Duka, 28; Mohamad Shnewer, 22; Serdar Tatar, 23; and Agron Abdullahu, 24.
The Dukas and Shnewer are from Cherry Hill. Tatar is a former Cherry Hill resident living in Philadelphia. Abdullahu lives in Atlantic County.
On the surface, at least, their experiences in coming to America mirrored the immigration story of dozens of other ethnic groups - a story that has been playing in a continual loop for a century and a half.
They were part of what the junior high school civics books used to refer to as the American melting pot.
Now it's paintball instead of pinball, and video instead of radio, but like the sons and daughters of immigrants a century ago, the Dukas, Shnewer, Abdullahu and Tatar - all to varying degrees - adapted to the new ways of their new world.
Only in the last two or three years did they appear to become radicalized. The reasons may lie at the heart of what the government alleges was the conspiracy to kill American soldiers.
Were they alienated and angry young men looking for a sense of identity and finding it in the philosophy of Osama bin Laden, as authorities allege?
Or were they - in a parallel to inner-city youths who gravitate toward the gang and drug culture - upset over a lack of opportunity, a failure to succeed, or their inability to fit in to the world around them?
"Certainly a big part of homegrown terrorism in Europe has to do with alienation, a sense of not belonging, being shut out, and not blending in," said Daniel Benjamin, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former director of counterterrorism for the National Security Council. "You don't want to destroy a society you feel part of."
Shnewer, who was born in Jordan, is a U.S. citizen. Tatar, born in Turkey, and Abdullahu, an ethnic Albanian from the former Yugoslavia, are legal resident aliens. The Duka brothers, also ethnic Albanians from what is now Macedonia, entered the country in the mid-1980s and are here illegally, authorities said last week.
All held jobs.
At least three are married. Dritan Duka's wife is an American. They have five children.
Yet somewhere along the way, if the government's charges are sustained, the six became radicalized. They sought an identity not in their new country, but in the philosophy of jihad.
"He seemed like a great kid," Pat Manna said when asked last week about Mohamad Shnewer.
Manna runs Gaetano's Pizza in a small shopping strip just off Route 70 West in Pennsauken. Shnewer's father, Ibrahim, operates Plaza Food Market & Halal Meats a few doors away.
Manna said Shnewer was polite, friendly and outgoing; quick to open a door for a friend or customer; and always ready for a pickup basketball game with coworkers.
"Sensible, bright," Manna said. "I would have sworn it's the wrong kid you had."
But the tapes made by an FBI informant who befriended Shnewer tell a different story and offer a different picture of the stocky 22-year-old.
"My intent is to hit a heavy concentration of soldiers," Shnewer said in one discussion of the plan to attack Fort Dix, according to the FBI affidavit. ". . . You hit four, five or six humvees and light the whole place [up] and retreat completely without any losses."
That tape was cited again Friday when prosecutors successfully argued against bail for Shnewer, who they said posed "a serious danger" to the community.
The hearing also provided some additional background on the suspect.
Shnewer graduated from Cherry Hill High School West in 2003 and has attended Camden County College, according to his attorney, Rocco Cipparone.
Cipparone said his client had come to the United States with his parents from Jordan as a 2-year-old. The family lived in Philadelphia for nine years before moving to Cherry Hill.
Shnewer dropped out of college recently to go back to work to help support his family, which includes four younger sisters, one of whom is married to Eljvir Duka.
Shnewer worked for a time at the family food market, but apparently had a falling out with his father, who nevertheless helped him get a job with All City Cab in Philadelphia.
In addition to running his food market, Ibrahim Shnewer drives a cab. Recently, he bought his son a van to use on the job.
James Atalah, a manager at the cab company, said in an interview last week that the elder Shnewer appeared troubled by his son's recent change in attitude, complaining that "in this country, you can't tell your own son what to do."
"Personally, I think the kid is lost," Atalah said.
At his food market earlier in the week, Ibrahim Shnewer, a slightly built man with a close-cut, dark-gray beard, said it was not the time to talk.
"He is my son," he said while standing in the dimly lit grocery. "One day I will give a quote and talk to all media, but now I have nothing to say."
The Duka brothers arrived in the United States around 1984 by way of Mexico, said Michael Huff, the lawyer for Dritan, the oldest.
They spent time in Texas, then moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., before settling in Cherry Hill in 1996. Shain and Eljvir attended Cherry Hill High School West, but did not graduate.
Last week, George Munyan, an assistant high school principal at the time, described Shain and Eljvir as "incredibly disruptive" and recalled that their father, Ferik, once threatened to attack a principal after being called to the school because of Eljvir's behavior. Police were summoned to remove the father, Munyan said.
Munyan, who retired in September, said he frequently had disciplined Eljvir for disrupting or cutting class and generally challenging authority.
But when they met privately, he said, Eljvir was very confident, charming and articulate.
Munyan said Eljvir had spoken proudly of being Muslim, but "never came across as being involved in any religious or political extremism."
The Duka family is part of an extended clan of ethnic Albanians who trace their origins to a small town not far from the border with the troubled former Serbian province of Kosovo.
And while some friends remember Shain and Eljvir as funny and happy-go-lucky while working at an uncle's pizza shop in Pennsauken several years ago, Shain and Dritan presented an entirely different image two years ago while selling a pizza shop they owned in Washington Township.
"Surly" and "arrogant" were the words Mario Giordano used to describe the brothers, from whom, he said, he bought what is now Tony Soprano's Pizza in 2005.
"This place was a rat trap when I bought it," said Giordano, a former Camden police officer. "Very ugly. I don't think they did any business. It was horrible."
Giordano remembered one other thing about the bearded brothers.
"They would always have the Koran out," he said. "I thought that was unusual. I'm a Catholic, and I don't keep the Bible open."
Whether the Duka brothers were devout Muslims before they came to the United States or whether that devotion blossomed during their alleged radicalization is impossible to determine.
The Duka and Shnewer families attended the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society Mosque on Germantown Avenue in North Philadelphia and the Islamic Center of South Jersey on Garfield Avenue in Palmyra.
Last week, representatives of both mosques decried violence and radicalism.
Marwan Kreidie of Al-Aqsa said the Duka brothers had been working on the roof of the mosque before they were arrested. They were providing the work free of charge, Kreidie said.
But he said they had attended prayer services there "very rarely."
Naseem Badat of the Islamic Center said that she did not know the boys very well, but that they were polite and well-mannered. She also said she was concerned that the center might be wrongly portrayed as a place where a terrorist plot was hatched.
That would be "disgraceful," she said. "This is a benign place."
In Cherry Hill's Old Orchard section, where the Dukas live, the arrests sparked varied reactions.
Ferik and Naza Duka moved their extended family into the Colonial-style house at 215 Mimosa Drive seven years ago, and the house quickly became a meeting place for relatives and friends.
In addition to the three brothers who have been charged, a younger brother and a younger sister live at the house.
Ferik Duka and his sons operated roofing and construction businesses from the residence and at one point reportedly had farm animals in the backyard.
Neighbors last week recalled roosters, chickens and goats. In fact, one neighbor moved because of the Dukas' lifestyle, said Greg Hilbert, who lives across the street.
"When my neighbor looked out her kitchen window and saw them slaughtering a lamb in the backyard, that was the final straw," he said.
Other neighbors, however, said the Dukas were friendly and, while certainly of a different ethnic background, hardly disruptive. They would wave and bring over baskets of backyard-grown tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, they said.
Michael Levine, 38, who lives at 219 Mimosa, said the Dukas' 16-year-old son was a good friend of his 14-year-old's and would occasionally come over for dinner or to swim in their pool.
"They seemed like normal people. You'd have no idea this would happen," he said.
Levine said he never discussed religion or politics with the family, but knew the Dukas were religious.
'An easygoing guy'
He used to joke about his "Uncle Benny."
Until his arrest last week, everyone laughed.
Uncle Benny was Agron Abdullahu's reference to Osama bin Laden.
Abdullahu, as he worked in the bakery of a ShopRite supermarket in Williamstown, Gloucester County, would tease his fellow workers about the futile attempts of the United States to capture bin Laden.
"U.S., no matter what they do, cannot catch my Uncle Benny," he would say.
That was the account Bob Watts provided for ABC's Good Morning America when asked about Abdullahu, his coworker for more than two years.
"He was an easygoing guy, made you laugh all the time," Watts said in the television interview. "He was somebody you really enjoyed working with."
Watts said he sometimes warned Abdullahu about his comments, pointing to the sensitivity of people in the post-9/11 era.
"You're going to get yourself in trouble," Watts said he had told his friend. But Watts also said he had not seen anything to indicate that Abdullahu harbored any hatred for America.
Watts, contacted Friday, said because of an employment relationship he had with ABC, he would not comment beyond what he had told the morning show.
Of all the suspects in the case, Abdullahu may be the most puzzling. The FBI affidavit described him as a "former sniper" in Kosovo. He came to the United States in 1999.
At least some reports indicate he was part of a massive influx of ethnic Albanian Muslims after the "ethnic cleansing" massacres that ripped the former Yugoslavia apart.
Targeted by Serbians in the bloody civil war that raged in the late 1990s, the Muslims who survived were saved in large part due to the intervention of the United States, which launched air attacks to stop the Serbian onslaught.
Many of the refugees brought to the United States were processed through and temporarily housed at Fort Dix.
Abdullahu is the only defendant not charged with plotting to kill American military personnel. But he does face charges of aiding and abetting illegal immigrants - the three Duka brothers - in obtaining weapons.
Abdullahu lived with his mother and father and two younger brothers and sister in a stone bungalow on Cains Mill Road just off the Black Horse Pike in Collings Lake.
Two boats and three cars were parked outside the house one day last week, but those inside declined to be interviewed.
Several individuals were busy boarding up the windows with plywood.
A reporter who knocked on the door was told to "go away."
Serdar Tatar used to deliver pizzas to military personnel at Fort Dix. Last week he was accused of plotting to kill them.
The Turkish-born deliveryman was charged, among other things, with supplying a map of the base to his fellow suspects and with taking part in shooting practice and paintball games that authorities described as training sessions for the assault.
Tatar allegedly got the map from Super Mario's Pizza, which his father, Muslim, owns and operates just outside the base.
Attorney Richard Sporaco said after Friday's detention hearing that his client was "distraught" over the charges and over the case's impact on his family, including his wife, Khalid, who is expecting twins in five months, and his mother, who was hospitalized last week while visiting family in Turkey.
The Tatar family came to the United States from Turkey in the late 1980s or early 1990s, settled in Cherry Hill, and later moved to Cookstown, near Fort Dix.
Serdar Tatar attended Cherry Hill High School West from 1998 to 2000, dropping out in 11th grade. He went to work in his father's pizzeria, but later set out on his own, moving to Philadelphia and getting a job as a clerk in a 7-Eleven.
He most recently began working as a manager at the chain's store on the Temple University campus just off North Broad Street.
He and his Russian-born wife live in an apartment in the 2100 block of Tremont Street in the Bustleton section of the city.
His wife, through a neighbor, described her husband last week as "everything in my life." She said he took care of her and her 11-year-old son from a previous marriage.
She said he was "very religious."
"He follows the Koran," she said.
On the tapes recorded by the government informant, Tatar expressed concern about providing "protection" for his family before the assault on Fort Dix was launched.
In what turned out to be a prescient comment, he also wondered whether the cooperator was "a fed," according to the FBI affidavit.
But in a later conversation, he said that didn't matter.
"I don't know you that much," Tatar said. "I don't know whether you're FBI . . . or an agent. Don't know. [But] whether you are or not, I'm gonna do it. Know why? . . . It doesn't matter to me whether I get locked up, arrested, or get taken away. It doesn't matter. Or I die. Doesn't matter. I'm doing it in the name of Allah"
Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Jennifer Moroz, Rita Giordano, Melanie Burney, Dwight Ott, Jan Hefler, Cynthia Burton, John Shiffman, Jennifer Lin, Robert Moran, Daniel Rubin, Joseph Gambardello and Edward Colimore
They lived in towns like this one, a comfortable and diverse Philadelphia suburb where the schools are acclaimed and the major landmark is a shopping mall. They worshipped at moderate mosques. They were family men -- most worked with relatives and were husbands and fathers themselves.
Those are not exactly the backgrounds some might expect for would-be terrorists.
But the government claims those are the portraits of six Muslim men planning to attack soldiers at Fort Dix for the glory of Allah, leaving many to wonder what caused them to turn on America.
Five of the men are charged with conspiring to kill uniformed military personnel, an offense punishable by life in prison. They are Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer, 22; Serdar Tatar, 23; Dritan "Anthony" or "Tony" Duka, 28; Shain Duka, 26; and Eljvir "Elvis" Duka, 23. Agron Abdullahu, 24, is charged with helping illegal immigrants obtain weapons, and could face 10 years in prison if convicted.
Authorities say they were men with the necessary will to massacre, who were trying to acquire the necessary weapons to carry out a terrorist attack. On Friday, a judge ordered the men to be held without bail -- something four of their lawyers said they had no grounds to object to.
They certainly did not strike the people who prayed with them as potential terrorists.
"It was very shocking for us," Zafar Ajmal said after a service Friday at the Islamic Center of South Jersey in Palmyra, where four of the men sometimes prayed. "No one in the community knew someone was plotting like this."
The six men, all in their 20s, were born abroad. Four are ethnic Albanians born in parts of the former Yugoslavia where the United States is adored more than hated. The others are from Turkey and Jordan.
And in the United States, the young men -- most of them sons of small-time entrepreneurs -- lived blue-collar lives and didn't stick out in many ways.
One of the suspects is Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer, 22, who came to the United States from Jordan with his family when he was just 2 years old. His four younger sisters were born in the United States and, thus, are citizens, said his lawyer, Rocco Cipparone. Shnewer himself was naturalized as a citizen just three years ago.
After he graduated from Cherry Hill West High School in 2002, he began taking courses at a community college. But when his family fell on hard times, he quit school and began driving a cab his father owned in Philadelphia.
The other suspects who lived in Cherry Hill were the brothers Dritan, Shain and Eljvir Duka. Two of them sometimes went by names more common in the U.S. -- Dritan was known as "Tony" and Eljvir as "Elvis."
The brothers, born in the former Yugoslavia, entered the United States illegally through Mexico in 1984, lived in Brooklyn for a time and moved to Cherry Hill more than 10 years ago, said one of their lawyers. They worked for their father's roofing business and lived in a big colonial home with a meticulously manicured yard.
Another suspect, Serdar Tatar, also worked for his father, delivering pizzas.
But after news of the arrests spread, employees quit and business quickly dried up, prompting Tatar's father to consider closing shop, said Tatar's lawyer, Richard Sporaco.
The shop is located in Cookstown, just outside Fort Dix and makes much of its money delivering pies to that post. Authorities have said that Tatar used to work there and knew his way around Fort Dix -- a key to the alleged plot.
Harvey Kushner, a terrorism expert at Long Island University, said it's not surprising that the suspects blended in so well. While there are common traits among other sorts of criminals -- such as mass murderers and serial bombers -- there are few signs of terrorists, he said.
"Terrorists come in all shapes and forms, all genders ... different ages, different nationalities," he said. "All of the things that make up the rainbow coalition of people make up terrorists."
The men appeared Friday in U.S. District Court in Camden. They were led into the courtroom wearing olive-green jail jumpsuits, each of the suspects smiled to relatives and friends, many of whom wept and blew kisses back to them.
Friends and relatives of Shnewer offered to post about $600,000 in equity in several properties they own as collateral to support bail for him. His strong ties to his family would keep him from fleeing, Cipparone argued.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Stigall argued against letting Shnewer be released on bail to the custody of his parents while awaiting trial. He said many of the illegal actions that the government alleges Shnewer committed happened or were planned at his parents' house.
A more detailed bail hearing will be held Thursday for Abdullahu.
While the others are facing conspiracy charges with possible penalties of life in prison, Abdullahu faces only weapons charges with a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison.
Authorities said they first learned about the men in January 2006 after a tip from a Mount Laurel electronics store.
Although court documents credit a single store employee for alerting authorities to a suspicious video, Circuit City spokeswoman Jackie Foreman on Friday said it was actually two employees who gave the tip.
The pair called local police because a home video the men wanted transferred to a DVD looked like it might have terrorist links, U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie said.
Michael Huff, the attorney for Dritan Duka, said representing terror suspects is a difficult proposition.
"This is post-9/11," he said after the court hearing. "This is one of the number one things on the public's mind."