The Terrorists Next Door?
Thursday, May 10, 2007
CHERRY HILL, N.J., May 9 -- From the front porch of her two-story home on Mimosa Drive, Susan DeFrancesco looked out on the neighborhood she calls "a little United Nations." Pointing from one house to the next, she said: "They're Asian; that family's from Poland. They're from Canada. She's from India. "
Living among those varied families for the past seven years were the Dukas, a three-generational clan of ethnic Albanians. Their Muslim religious garb, repeated minor run-ins with the law, and a brood of up to 20 children, grandchildren and other relatives made them unusual, but hardly unwelcome.
"You don't want to single out a family because of where they're from or what they believe," DeFrancesco said.
On Tuesday morning, it suddenly looked different when three of the Duka brothers -- young, bearded men in their 20s who had spent most of their lives in New Jersey -- were among the six men indicted in an alleged terrorist plot to attack nearby Fort Dix with assault weapons.
For this bedroom community in the shadow of the Philadelphia skyline, they would become the accused jihadists next door -- their arrest immediately shattering assumptions both here and beyond about who Islamic militants are.
Experts have warned that the next big terrorist threat will come from homegrown extremists, unaffiliated with al Qaeda but harboring resentments fostered by materials easily available from the Internet. In fact, the few who have shown themselves thus far prove that there is no stereotype.
Most of the men arrested Tuesday were European rather than Middle Eastern. They hail from one of the most pro-American and secular parts of the Muslim world -- the ethnic Albanian regions of Macedonia, where gratitude for U.S. assistance in Kosovo during the 1990s still runs high.
They live in a garden-variety subdivision like those on the outskirts of cities from Washington, D.C., to Seattle -- once-homogeneous communities now quickly becoming ethnically and racially mixed. Their children play soccer and video games with the neighbors' kids; they hawked their roofing business at Friday prayers.
Had they not offered up an alleged jihadist video to be duplicated at a nearby Circuit City, they might never have been spotted.
That is precisely what has shaken this tree-lined suburb, where residents and leaders have prided themselves on tolerance and unity in the face of significant demographic shifts. Only last Sunday, leaders from the Islamic, Jewish and Roman Catholic faiths united with Mayor Bernie Platt on a empty patch of land in a moving groundbreaking ceremony for the community's first mosque.
Farhat Biviji, 54, a founding member of the soon-to-be-built Anjuman-I-Fakhri Mosque in Cherry Hill, said: "My heart sank when we heard of these horrible men who claimed to be Muslims. They are testing us all. Testing our ability to retain that tolerance. I pray that they have not damaged the goodwill of our community."
Perhaps they already have.