By Dale Russakoff and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
CHERRY HILL, N.J., May 8 -- A group of would-be terrorists, allegedly undone after attempting to have jihad training videos copied onto a DVD, has been charged with conspiring to attack Fort Dix and kill soldiers there with assault rifles and grenades, authorities said Tuesday.
Five men -- all foreign-born and described as "radical Islamists" by federal authorities -- allegedly trained at a shooting range in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains to kill "as many soldiers as possible" at the historic Army base 25 miles east of Philadelphia. A sixth man was charged with helping them obtain illegal weapons.
FBI and Justice Department officials said the arrests were the result of a 16-month operation to infiltrate and monitor the group. It was portrayed as a leaderless, homegrown cell of immigrants from Jordan, Turkey and the former Yugoslavia who came together because of a shared infatuation with Internet images of jihad, or holy war.
Authorities said the group has no apparent connection to al-Qaeda or other international terrorist organizations aside from ideology, but appears to be an example of the kind of self-directed sympathizers widely predicted -- and feared -- by counterterrorism specialists. The defendants allegedly passed around and copied images of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the martyrdom videos of two of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers.
"Unlike other cases we've done, there was no clear ringleader," U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie said in an interview. "They all seemed to feed off each other. They were clearly guys turning to this element for inspiration. They wanted to be jihadists."
At the same time, a 26-page indictment unsealed Tuesday indicates that the group had no rigorous military training and did not appear close to being able to pull off an attack. The arrests in the case began Monday night after two defendants arrived at a local home to buy assault weapons, which had been supplied and disabled by the FBI, officials said.
Much of the evidence in the case was obtained with the help of two paid informants, including one described as an Egyptian military veteran who befriended one suspect about a year ago and surreptitiously taped many of their conversations. The defendants were also tripped up by information obtained from computers and cellphones, according to records and officials.
The FBI first got wind of the alleged plot in January 2006, after an unidentified store clerk alerted police to a video that showed the men firing assault weapons, calling for jihad and yelling "God is great" in Arabic, officials said. The men had submitted the video file to the store so that it could be copied onto a DVD, authorities said.
According to the indictments, the video came from firearms training in the Poconos. The group also allegedly trained with paintball guns and scouted several military facilities for an attack, including Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the U.S. Coast Guard Building in Philadelphia and other targets.
Authorities said the group settled on Fort Dix in part because one defendant, Serdar Tatar, 23, had delivered pizzas to the base from his family's nearby restaurant, Super Mario Pizza, and knew the area "like the palm of his hand," according to a defendant. Tatar, who was born in Turkey and is a legal U.S. resident, also obtained a map of the base, according to the charges.
In one recording cited in court documents, Tatar raised the possibility that the informant worked for the FBI and acknowledged the risk of sharing the map. But he said that "it doesn't matter to me whether I get locked up, arrested or taken away. Or I die, it doesn't matter. I'm doing it in the name of Allah."
Another defendant, Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer, 22, a Jordanian native employed as a taxi driver in Philadelphia, was quoted in the indictment as saying that "you can hit an American base very easily."
Shnewer also allegedly said: "When you got a military base, you need mortars and RPGs."
Three defendants are ethnic Albanian brothers from the former Yugoslavia who operated a roofing business in Cherry Hill and lived in the United States illegally: Eljvir Duka, 23, Dritan Duka, 28, and Shain Duka, 26. A sixth defendant, Agron Abdullahu, 24, also an ethnic Albanian born in the former Yugoslavia, is charged with helping the Dukas illegally obtain firearms.
The Duka brothers lived with their parents in a beige two-story house on Mimosa Drive, a winding suburban street. The brothers also did car repairs from the house, neighbors said.
"They did everything together," said neighbor Mike Levine. "It was like they were attached at the hip."
The Duka home was empty Tuesday, and the brothers' red pickup with a ladder and roofing materials in the back was parked in front of it. A blue BMW and a white minivan sat in the driveway. The front yard was manicured, with two palm trees, sculpted flowerpots bearing lilies and impatiens, and a flower bed with colorful spring blooms.
Neighbors said the family had lived on the block for about seven years and had always seemed different from other suburbanites. There were 10 to 20 people living there -- two parents, five children, five grandchildren, daughters-in-law and others. The family raised sheep, goats and roosters in the back yard.
Neighbors said this violated local ordinances, and they periodically called police, who would write citations, after which the animals would disappear -- but only for a time. The neighbors said they noticed that the father and mother wore religious garb and that the father and sons all had beards and prayed at various times during the day. But no one considered them militant, several neighbors said.
Some neighbors, however, said they had become suspicious in recent months when the women and children of the large clan moved away, leaving only the men and the mother.
"We all wondered -- where did the ladies go? Where are the children?" said Susan DeFrancesco, who lives across the street and who said her children used to ride the bus to school with the Duka grandchildren.
One law enforcement source close to the investigation said that it was "hard to say" whether the group would have followed through on an attack, but that authorities had to err on the side of caution in making the arrests.
"Obviously, these guys had some radical beliefs and the stuff they downloaded from the Web was very serious," said the source, who requested anonymity so that he could discuss an ongoing case. "But it's not like they were going to be able to get rocket-propelled grenades and blow things up."
The Duka brothers are charged with conspiracy to murder members of the armed forces and face possible life sentences. Abdullahu is charged with aiding and abetting illegal weapons possession and faces 10 years in prison. All six were held without bond after a court appearance Tuesday.
Fort Dix, which has about 14,000 soldiers, sheltered more than 4,000 ethnic Albanian refugees during the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo in 1999.
But Christie said the Dukas are believed to have entered the United States before that conflict and were not among the refugees held at Fort Dix. One U.S. law enforcement official said the brothers may have entered the country legally but overstayed visas or violated other immigration requirements.
Eggen reported from Washington. Staff writers Sari Horwitz and Spencer S. Hsu and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.