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The Terrorists Next Door?

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As a reporter approached the Duka house on Wednesday evening, two young mothers across the street yelled out, "Don't go over there and talk to them -- you don't know what they'll do."

Then Zurata Duka, the mother of the three arrested brothers, proclaimed their innocence, asking why neighbors now run from her.

"My sons got caught saying nothing -- there is no proof, no words from them in that affidavit, only the other three," she said. Wearing a headscarf and long robe, she threw her arms out, gesturing at her sons' pickup truck. "Look, it's their roofing truck. They're hard workers. If they were really terrorists, would they take that tape to Circuit City?"

A teenager who declined to give his name but said he was their younger brother declared: "I'm with my brothers 24-7. They never talked like terrorists."

In their daily lives, according to dozens of interviews with neighbors, authorities and acquaintances, the six arrested men largely blended into the cultural patchwork of southern New Jersey, a region emblematic of the changing face of suburban America.

In the Cherry Hill School District, children now speak 62 native languages, compared with 53 in 1998. White children made up 92 percent of the school district in 1980 -- compared with 76 percent today.

Within 10 miles of Cherry Hill, two mosques have sprung up over the past 15 years. One is the South Jersey Islamic Center in Palmyra, about 11 miles northwest of Cherry Hill, where the Duka brothers -- whose brother-in-law, Mohamad Ibrahim Shmewer, was also arrested Tuesday -- regularly worshiped on Friday evenings.

U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie said in an interview that it was inside the South Jersey Islamic Center that the Duka brothers met and recruited Serdar Tatar, 23, a Turkish-born legal U.S. resident raised in the south Jersey area.

Members of the mosque remember the Dukas differently. The eldest brother, Dritan, 28, was described as a friendly, outgoing man who would use the center to drum up customers for his roofing business, often telling jokes and heartily slapping backs. But as ethnic Albanians in a mosque dominated by Pakistani and Arabs, many of whom did not speak fluent English, conversations with the Dukas were often cursory.

"How are we supposed to know what they are thinking? The brothers came to the mosque for Friday prayers, but did not seem overly religious or interested in Muslim teachings," said a 41-year-old Tunisian butcher and regular worshiper at the mosque who requested anonymity.

"The oldest brother was a funny guy, a joker. But he was not North African or Pakistani, and the language barriers often force us to talk among our own ethnic groups. But they certainly did not seem like people who hated this country."

The Dukas were living in America illegally, having entered two decades ago on now-expired visas. In almost every way, they were products of typical U.S. suburban life. Shain, 26, and Eljvir, 24, attended Cherry Hill West High School and often played soccer in their front yard.


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