Five South Jersey Muslims convicted of plot to kill soldiers at Fort Dix
December 22, 2008
Fort Dix five guilty of conspiracy to kill soldiers
by John P. Martin/The Star-Ledger Monday December 22, 2008, 1:30 PM
Five Muslim immigrants from South Jersey were convicted today of plotting to kill American soldiers, a crime that prosecutors said demonstrated how Al Qaeda was using the Internet to recruit, train and incite supporters for attacks in the United States and around the world.
Jurors at federal district court in Camden deliberated into a sixth day before declaring the men guilty of conspiracy. The jurors, however, acquitted the men of an additional charge of attempted murder, while also convicting some of the men on weapons counts.
Along with the verdict, the jurors sent U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler a note explaining the serious nature of their deliberations.
"The burden imposed on us has been heavy, but we are confident our verdict has been reached fairly and impartially," according to the jurors' note Kugler read aloud in court.Shirley ShepardDefendants Shain Duka, bottom left, Eljvir Duka, Dritan Duka, Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer and Serdar Tatar in a federal courtroom Oct. 20.
The Fort Dix five include brothers Eljvir, Dritan and Shain Duka, ethnic Albanians who worked at a family roofing business; Mohamad Shnewer, a Jordanian who drove a cab and worked at his family's market in Pennsauken, and Serdar Tatar, a native of Turkey who was an assistant manager at a Philadelphia 7-Eleven.
Each faces up to life in prison on the conspiracy charge. Sentencing was set for April 22 and 23
The verdicts represented a victory for prosecutors and validation of tactics the FBI has increasingly used nationwide to detect and disrupt suspected terror organizations. They were arrested in May 2007, after a 15-month investigation that ended when two suspects tried to buy automatic weapons from an FBI informant.
During an eight-week trial that authorities said showcased homegrown terrorism in the United States, prosecutors argued the defendants, all foreign-born Muslim immigrants, conspired to kill U.S. military members at Fort Dix or another target and sought automatic weapons to carry out the strike.
Just the second major terrorism case in New Jersey since the 9/11 attacks, it mirrored investigations in cities from Detroit to Miami to Portland, where agents have used informants to infiltrate alleged terror plots and arrested suspects at the earliest stages of plotting an attack. In some cases, the tactics have spawned questions about if the suspects were truly capable or planning to strike.
The Fort Dix probe began in January 2006 when an electronics store clerk in South Jersey gave police a copy of a customer's videotape that showed the men firing rifles and shouting Islamic battle cries. FBI agents and two paid cooperators then spent 15 months shadowing the suspects, recording their conversations and examining their computers.
The evidence indicated that the men gathered weekly at a Palmyra mosque and regularly watched and discussed Al Qaeda videos extolling jihads and depicting deadly attacks against U.S. forces. In January 2006 and February 2007, they rented a house in the Pocono Mountains, where investigators said they trained for an attack by riding horses, shooting weapons at a rifle range and playing war games with paintball.
Prosecutors conceded the men had not settled on a target or a timetable for their strike, but called them "radical Islamists" with a shared goal: a jihad to kill American troops. They played for jurors hidden videos of the lead defendant, Shnewer, traveling with an FBI informant to Fort Dix, Dover Air Force Base and other sites in August 2006.
"This is exactly what we are looking for," Shnewer told the informant, Mahmoud Omar, as they passed the Burlington County base, a staging point for troops headed to Iraq. "You hit four, five or six Humvees and light the whole place (up) and retreat completely without any losses."
In other conversations, Shnewer proposed commandeering a gasoline tanker for a suicide mission at a military installation or firing a rocket into the Philadelphia Naval Base around the time of the annual Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia.
Agents enlisted a second informant to ingratiate himself with three other suspects, brothers Dritan, Shain and Eljvir Duka of Cherry Hill, like him ethnic Albanians who snuck in the country. They planted that informant at a Dunkin Donuts in Cinnaminson where the brothers gathered each Friday after mosque services.
Prosecutors said the fifth defendant, Serdar Tatar, whose father owned a pizzeria that delivered to Fort Dix, aided the plot by giving the informant a map of the base interior.
Defense attorneys insisted there was no conspiracy. They portrayed Shnewer, a Jordanian and the only naturalized U.S. citizen among the defendants, as a pathetic loner, encouraged and emboldened by an FBI informant who showered him with attention and advice like an older brother. They acknowledged Shnewer talked a lot and collected jihadist videos - particularly after meeting the informant -- but said he speaking without the knowledge or approval of the others.
They noted that none of the suspects besides Shnewer were recorded discussing plans or targets. At times, they expressed support for Muslim fighters overseas and contemplated joining them or sending money, but also seemed reluctant. "We just talk, we know," Shain Duka said during one recorded conversation.
And they pointed out that Tatar reported to Philadelphia police officer that Omar had been pressing him for a map.
Attorneys spent eight days of cross-examination trying to challenge the credibility and motives of the informants. They noted for jurors that Omar had a history of bank fraud and was paid nearly $240,000 for his work on the case, while the second informant, Besnik Bakalli, was wanted for a shooting in Albania and awaiting deportation when agents plucked him from a Pennsylvania jail.
But prosecutors said the attacks against the informants were desperate ploys to distract jurors from the core evidence: hours of recorded conversations in which the defendants spoke admiringly of Al Qaeda and Taliban forces, showed disdain for American troops and a desire to act.
Eljvir Duka declared he wanted to "train sniper" and wondered how far he would have to stand from the White House to shoot the president.
Tatar ultimately gave the informant the map, and then lied to agents about it. "I'm in, honestly, I'm in," he told the informant.
Dritan Duka, at 30 the oldest of the brothers and a father of five, told the informant in March 2007 they could "do a lot of damage" and that he was ready "to start something." When someone asked if he meant joining a jihad overseas, Duka replied: "No, I say here. Hit them here."
Two months later, he and his brother Shain were arrested attempting to buy four M-16 automatic rifles and three AK-47 semiautomatic weapons in a gun buy arranged by the FBI. The others were picked up that night.
In addition to the terror conspiracy, authorities indicted them on charges of illegal weapons possession. The Dukas are illegal immigrants; Tatar is a legal permanent resident.
Also arrested with them in May 2007 was a sixth suspect, an ethnic Albanian named Agron Abdullahu, whom authorities said provided guns but wasn't part of the terror conspiracy. Abdullahu pleaded guilty later that year to weapons charges and was sentenced to 20 months in prison.
The trial unfolded under heavy security. Officials closed car lanes around the Camden courthouse and visitors to the trial had to pass through two security stations. Inside the proceedings, as many as 10 deputy U.S. Marshals ringed the courtroom each day, and jurors spent each night of deliberations sequestered at a nearby hotel. http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2008/12/shell_fort_dix.html