After the terrible attacks in Mumbai, India last week, it’s easy to understand why preventing acts of terrorism is the FBI’s top priority. But in 2006 and 2007, the FBI was so zealous in its mission that it was willing to stake an entire investigation on a con man and a thug. Now, at a trial taking place in a federal court in Camden, New Jersey, it’s beginning to look like our nation’s elite investigative agency has been had.
Five young men, all foreign-born Muslims who grew up Cherry Hill, New Jersey, are accused of plotting a terrorist attack on United States soil. Prosecutors allege that they planned to kill soldiers at Fort Dix, a military base located only a few miles up the road in the heart of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. They were, a prosecutor stated in opening arguments, holy warriors intent on bringing jihad to America.
The Fort Dix Five
The defendants, called the “Fort Dix Five,” are:
- Three brothers who are ethnic Albanians from what is now Macedonia: Dritan Duka (age 29), Shain Duka (27) and Eljvir Duka (25). Their father brought them into the country illegally in 1984, when they were small children.
- Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer, 24, a Palestinian cab driver from Jordan, who is Dritan Duka’s brother-in-law and a naturalized American citizen.
- Serdar Tartar, 25, born in Turkey, who worked at his father’s pizzeria and frequently delivered pizza to Fort Dix.
These men, and one other, went to a shooting range in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, where they allegedly practiced firing automatic weapons. They videotaped themselves shooting the weapons and shouting, “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great.” On January 31, 2006, they were stupid enough to bring the tape to a Circuit City store to be converted into a DVD. A store clerk called the authorities, and the FBI took action.
The FBI set up an elaborate undercover operation to find out what was going on. They recruited two other Muslims to infiltrate the group and spent 15 months secretly recording 200 conversations, mostly with Shnewer.
Then the FBI set up a sting in one informant’s Cherry Hill apartment. They had him offer M-16 and AK-47 rifles to the Dritan and Shain Duka, with the entire transaction captured on closed-circuit TV.
As soon as the brothers paid for the weapons, FBI agents stormed the room and arrested them.
The five Muslim men are charged with attempted murder and conspiracy to murder military personnel. Four are also charged with weapons offenses. They all face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The con man
The case now being prosecuted by the Department of Justice rests primarily on the evidence gathered by the informants. So who are these guys?
The main informant is Mahmoud Omar, 39, an Egyptian national who was also an illegal immigrant. He slipped into the country in the 1980s and acquired a green card after marrying a U.S. citizen. He is now living with another woman, with whom he has two daughters.
Omar, a former used-car salesman, was convicted of passing bad checks in 2002. He served six months in prison, and then five years probation, for that offense. He also filed for bankruptcy in 2002 and was facing possible deportation.
In 2005, he was convicted of bank fraud again for another check-cashing scam. The FBI offered him a deal: If he worked as an informant in terrorism investigations (not related to the Fort Dix case), he could avoid prosecution and deportation.
Then, in 2006, the FBI learned of the five young Muslims from New Jersey. They offered Omar $1,500 per week and a free $1,400 per month apartment in Cherry Hill to befriend the young men and record their conversations. He accepted the gig, and has been paid $238,000 by the FBI.
Four days before he was supposed to take the stand in the trial, Omar was smoking marijuana.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the defense characterized Omar as “a pot-smoking thief, a liar, and an opportunistic con man who planted ideas in the minds of the men who stand accused.”
Defense attorneys said that Omar offered suggestions to the young Muslims on how to carry out an attack, and tried to manipulate them into taking action. When they said they had no weapons, Omar said he could get them. And he did—the guns he sold to Dritan and Shain Duka were supplied by the FBI.
There’s another government informant, and he’s just as unsavory as Omar. According to Newsday.com, Besnik Bakalli, came to the United States illegally, then returned to Albania, where he shot a man. The man was not killed, but Bakalli was convicted in absentia.
Back in the U.S. in 2005, Bakalli was arrested for making terroristic threats, and a girlfriend got a restraining order against him in 2006. He was about to be deported when the FBI offered him legal resident status if he helped with the Fort Dix investigation. In fact, the FBI brought Bakalli’s mother and sister here from Albania last year.
Bakalli starts testifying today. Prosecutors have asked the judge to rule questions about his criminal past off limits.
Plot, or no plot?
Testimony from the trial, as reported by the media, definitely paints a fuzzy picture. The key question, writes George Anastasia of the Philadelphia Inquirer, is this:
Did the defendants plot a jihad-inspired attack on the base? Or were the five foreign-born Muslims, some more outspoken than others, manipulated into talk that created the appearance of a conspiracy that never existed?
Anastasia points out testimony that seems to indicate the Muslims weren’t really going to do it. Only one guy, Shnewer, kept coming up with ideas, like hijacking a gas tanker and driving it on a suicide mission, although he admitted he didn’t know how to drive a truck. The other guys apparently thought Shnewer was a nut case.
In my view, there was no real conspiracy. There were young Muslim guys firing guns at a shooting range and talking trash. There was a manipulative con man, an illegal immigrant previously convicted of fraud, who kept getting paid as long as he kept the chumps talking. There was a thug who wanted to beat shooting rap in Albania and stay in the United States.
The FBI built its case on two guys who sound like a models of sociopathy. I predict that the jury will see what the cops were determined not to see, and the five young men will walk.