Lawyers in a case relating to a much vaunted 2007 terror plot concluded that FBI informants were the key figures behind the operation and that the accused, six foreign-born Muslims, were merely bungling patsies.
Defense attorneys have denied there was any plot, arguing two FBI informants concocted and encouraged the conspiracy because they were being paid and promised legal immigration status, reports the New Jersey Star-Ledger.
“The only terrorist conspiracy was one planted and nurtured by the informant” argued attorney, Rocco Cipparone as he highlighted exchanges between the informant, Mahmoud Omar, and defendant Mohamad Shnewer in a conversation after the two men drove to the Fort Dix Army base 25 miles east of Philadelphia last year.
At the time the incident was hyped by the mainstream corporate media as a major coup for Federal authorities as they announced that they had foiled a complex radical Islamist terrorist plot to attack Fort Dix and kill “as many soldiers as possible” at the heavily fortified Army base.
Five of the men who were arrested were born in Jordan, Turkey, and the former Yugoslavia. It soon became apparent, however, that none of them had any ties to international terrorism.
One of the defendants is accused of giving the informant a map of the Fort Dix cantonment area, which he took from his father’s pizzeria, which delivered food inside Fort Dix.
The supposed plot involved getting into the military installation disguised as pizza deliverymen with three AK-47 automatic assault rifles and four semi-automatic M-16 rifles, going up against hundreds of trained soldiers and shooting as many soldiers and Humvees as they could, then retreating without losses to fight again another day.
Critics were quick to point out that the chances of this being in any way possible were somewhat slim. Indeed, even some of the suspects themselves indicated the idea constituted a waste of time and money.
The FBI says it learned of the supposed plot when the suspects went to a Circuit City store and asked a clerk to transfer a “jihad training video” of themselves onto a DVD. The accused also reportedly asked a police officer where they could obtain more maps of the army base.
Despite such bungling activity, the men were described by authorities as “well organized and nearly ready to strike.”
In addition, it later emerged that the extent of the suspects’ supposed military-style “training” turned out to be trips to a firing range in the Poconos and playing paintball in the woods.
Further reports, quietly admitted “there is little indication that they were devout–or even practicing–Muslims.”
Indeed, the defense attorneys have also pointed out that the Poconos trip was a regular vacation for some of the suspects.
“The attorney for Dritan Duka… played a videotape of the defendants riding horses in the snow outside the rental home, noted that the group swam in an indoor pool, loaded up on steaks, brought video games and rented the movies ‘Scarface’ and ‘Eddie Murphy Raw’ from a local Blockbuster.” reports The Star-Ledger.
The defense attorneys have argued that the self-serving FBI informants, described as small-time criminals, concocted and fueled the conspiracy plot, aiming to fool the suspects, and that FBI agents accepted it be cause they were eager to claim a terrorism victory.
By the end of the year, one of the of the informants, Omar, will have received nearly $240,000 for his role in the operation – $185,000 in payments plus reimbursement for $25,000 in expenses and nearly $29,000 in rent.
On the evening of May 7, 2007, 48-year-old Lata Duka was doing dishes in the kitchen of her home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, when she heard a loud bang come from the front of the house. “It wasn’t a normal sound. I was very scared,” Lata recalls nearly a decade later.
Thinking someone was breaking in, Lata grabbed a chair from the kitchen table and hoisted it above her head, waiting for the intruder. Moments later a swarm of armed men burst through the front door and ran into her kitchen. “Put the chair down or I’ll shoot!” she says one exclaimed, pushing his gun against her chest.
The armed men were FBI agents and other law enforcement officials. As they searched the house, one of the men approached Lata. He was smiling.
“He kept asking me, where are my sons!” Lata remembers. “Just smiling and going up and down the stairs, asking me all the time, where are your sons? I told him my sons were at work. He just kept smiling at me.”
Lata didn’t know that at roughly the same time, authorities were conducting raids at separate locations in Cherry Hill to arrest her three sons, Dritan, Shain and Eljvir Duka. Over 100 officers and agents were involved in what at the time was one of the most high-profile counterterrorism arrests in the post-9/11 era.
The next morning, Chris Christie, then the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, appeared at a press conference flanked by law enforcement officials to announce the arrests. “The philosophy that supports and encourages jihad around the world against Americans came to live here in New Jersey and threatened the lives of our citizens through these defendants,” he said.
Christie said that five men apprehended the previous night — the three Duka brothers along with two friends, Mohamad Shnewer and Serdar Tatar — had been planning to launch a terrorist attack against the nearby Fort Dix military base. “Fortunately, law enforcement in New Jersey was here to stop them,” he said.
The press conference and ensuing case garnered national attention, and the brothers and their friends quickly became known as the “Fort Dix Five,” characterized in the media as a terrorist cell that intended to kill servicemen and attack facilities at the base. For Christie, now a possible contender for the GOP 2016 presidential nomination, the arrests would be a career turning point, helping galvanize his eventual rise to governor of New Jersey.
For the Duka family, the arrests marked a tragic turn. They had escaped the turmoil of the former Yugoslavia and managed to start anew in the United States, only to find three sons publicly branded as terrorists. Dritan, Shain and Eljvir, seized when they were 28, 26 and 23, would be convicted of conspiring to kill U.S. military personnel and sentenced to life in prison, devastating the Duka family and putting an end to their nascent American dream.
Beyond the sensational headlines is the story of paid FBI informants with long criminal histories who spent a year working to befriend the brothers and enlist them as terrorists. This effort, both expensive and time-consuming, nevertheless failed to convince the Duka brothers to take part in a violent attack. Indeed, over the course of hundreds of hours of surveillance, the plot against Fort Dix was never even raised with them.
In the years since these events occurred, the use of dubious informants in terrorism investigations by the FBI has become almost routine. When purported terror plots are “revealed,” they almost invariably involve paid government informants at every level of their ideation, facilitation and planning. But the story of the Duka brothers is an early example of this type of case — and it still stands out because of the deliberate and brazen way the brothers were entrapped by authorities, assisted by their paid informants. Indeed, one might argue that the targeting of the Dukas was the prototype for the program of state-orchestrated terrorism plots that continues today.
In the 1980’s, Yugoslavia was in its final chaotic decade of existence. Lata Duka and her husband, Firik, both ethnic Albanian Muslims, decided to leave their small village of Spas in search of a better life for their three young boys.
The Dukas traveled by train across Europe to a refugee camp in Latina, Italy, where they stayed for a year. From there, they boarded a plane to Mexico City and made their way to the Rio Grande, which they crossed by canoe into Texas. Once across the border, the family spent 12 hours in the back of a pickup truck to Dallas, before finally heading east toward their final destination: the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
None of the Dukas spoke English at the time, and they had entered the country without legal documents. Firik found a job stocking shelves at a Korean-owned fruit stand, where he was paid $175 a week. He made flashcards to learn the names of the produce he was handling, and at night, he would come home and teach his wife the words he had learned. “Our way of life was to just take care of our families, just live simply, and teach the children how to work hard,” Firik says.
Life in Brooklyn wasn’t easy, and the Duka family was only getting bigger. Lata and Firik had two more children: a girl named Naze and a boy named Burim. When their oldest child, Dritan, or Tony as he’d come to be called, turned six, they sent him to public school. Because he could barely speak English, he fell behind the other kids. When Lata got notes from his teachers, she couldn’t read them.
Bensonhurst was known, in Brooklyn and beyond, as a home for ethnic mafias. “Growing up, the Russians would be with the Russians, Italians with the Italians, and the Albanians with the Albanians,” remembers Burim, the youngest of the four brothers. “The Albanians never started nothing, but sometimes, if someone came to us, we had to fight.” It wasn’t unusual for the boys to come home with a black eye or a bleeding lip. In time, they adapted to the street life of their neighborhood, developing thick Brooklyn accents and a swagger to match.
Tony, who had a temper, frequently got into fights at school. He knew he was heading down a bad path and dropped out during his freshman year, telling his father, “If I don’t, I’m either going to end up in jail or dead.” Reluctantly, Firik got his son a job at a wholesale food distributor, where he was driving delivery trucks.
Though he stopped attending classes, Tony continued to pick up his brother Shain from high school, where he eventually met a student named Jennifer Marino. The two fell in love, began dating, and a year later were engaged. Jennifer moved into the Duka family’s small apartment.
Like their older brother, Shain and Eljvir also dropped out of school to work, and spent more time hanging out on the streets. At various points, the three brothers were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and marijuana possession.
Firik and Lata grew increasingly frustrated; they hadn’t moved their family halfway across the world to have them give up their education and get caught up in petty crime. They were at a loss for what to do, and overwhelmed by the challenges of life as immigrants in America. In an effort to keep their sons out of trouble, Firik moved the family out of Brooklyn to a two-bedroom apartment in suburban Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Tony, Jennifer and their newborn baby girl, Lejla, took one room, while Firik and Lata took the other. Shain, Eljvir, Naze and Burim all slept in the living room.
One day after leaving work, Shain and his girlfriend got into a car accident. While their injuries were minor, the experience shook Shain. “I realized that if I had died then I would have gone to hell,” Shain says of the experience, writing to The Intercept from a federal prison in Kentucky, where he’s currently incarcerated. “The accident made me realize that death can come at any moment so I better try and get right.”
Over the course of the next year, Shain began to take his Muslim identity more seriously. He stopped drinking and smoking pot, and says these changes in behavior opened up conversations about religion among the brothers. “I started to read the Quran a bit, and pray every now and then. It was a struggle because I didn’t want to be fake,” Shain says. “When I do something, I don’t want to be hypocritical. Over here praying and fasting, then over here in a nightclub smoking weed with a bunch of girls partying. No, I would try and do it wholeheartedly.”
Lata and Firik, both practicing Muslims, were overjoyed by this change. “I had tears in my eyes when they were telling me they would start praying,” says Lata. As the tumult of their early years passed, the brothers began to settle into lives revolving around family and work, pooling their money to open a restaurant, which they named Dukas Pizza. They also became more religious. Their understanding of Islam was elementary and largely self-taught, and for the first time, they began attending mosque services on Fridays, praying five times a day and growing out their beards. They incorporated Islamic phrases into their everyday lives, greeting each other with “Salaam alaikum,” or “Peace be upon you.”
As the Dukas were changing, the United States was about to change, too. On September 11, 2001, hijacked planes crashed into the Word Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. “When it happened, I was driving to a job in Jersey. My kids called me from home and told me something had happened,” Firik says. “I used to deliver food in those buildings, and I would take Shain along with me. When he was a child, the Twin Towers were his favorite buildings in the city. We couldn’t believe this was happening.”
In the aftermath of the attacks, the national mood turned. The Dukas, like many others, were opposed to the subsequent wars launched by the Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan. In their view, the U.S. was waging an unfounded attack on two countries that had nothing to do with 9/11. “I was frustrated and against the wars. I believed the wars were unjust and wrong,” Shain wrote from prison. “They killed so many innocent people.”
The Dukas also began to grow increasingly disenchanted with the widespread mistreatment of Muslims. In Europe, the 2004 Madrid train bombing, believed to be carried out by an al Qaeda-inspired terror cell, was followed the next year by a series of attacks in London. Public officials in Europe and the U.S. began to warn of the threat posed by young Muslim men. “America was turning into a spy state, it used 9/11 as a stepping stone to justify this,” Shain says. “Not everyone was affected, so not everyone cared, but Muslim people felt it.”
Yet the Duka family continued to thrive. Firik had started his own roofing business, which the brothers decided to focus on full time, selling their pizzeria. By the end of 2005, the company employed a growing staff and the future seemed bright. The boys decided to do something they had done many times before as a family: take a vacation.
In January 2006, the Duka brothers and a group of friends, including Mohamad Shnewer, Eljvir Duka’s former schoolmate and future brother-in-law, took a trip to a cabin in the Poconos Mountains in Northern Pennsylvania. There, they did what any group of young men might do on vacation: they went skiing, played paintball in the woods, rode horses at the stables and went to the shooting range.
Tony brought his video camera to record his brothers and friends. After the trip, Burim and Shain took the tape from Tony’s camera to a Circuit City near their home in Cherry Hill. They wanted to make copies of the video to give to everyone who went on the trip.
The Circuit City clerk processing the videotape saw a group of young bearded men in the woods, skiing, shooting guns and riding horses. The Dukas, whose daily speech was often punctuated with Arabic phrases, could occasionally be heard saying “Allahu Akbar” on and off camera. While in earlier years a group of young Muslim men at the shooting range may not have aroused the panic of employees, in the heightened paranoia after 9/11, it was enough to trigger alarm.
The employee called the police and reported the tape.
The footage revealed no evidence of a crime, but the Circuit City employee’s call to the police set in motion a series of events that would soon link the Dukas and their friends to Mahmoud Omar, a 36-year-old Egyptian immigrant who was also an FBI confidential informant.
In the 1970s, when the Senate was investigating the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO domestic counterintelligence operations, the agency employed around 1,500 confidential informants. Today, that number has ballooned to 15,000 confidential informants. Many of these individuals have long-documented criminal histories or problems with their immigration status, and their entanglement with the law is exploited to coax them into helping generate criminal cases against people who have yet to commit concrete acts.
In 2006, the FBI approached Omar, who also lived in Cherry Hill. He had moved to the U.S. in the 1990s and made a living exporting cars to Egypt; in some cases, they had been reported stolen. Convictions for fraud littered his record. “They showed me a photograph and asked me who it was in the picture,” he told The Intercept by phone. “The FBI don’t come and ask you if you know someone if they don’t already know the answer.”
The man in the photograph was Mohamad Shnewer, Eljvir Duka’s friend and future brother-in-law. Omar knew Shnewer in passing from shopping at the Shnewer family’s halal grocery store. The FBI told Omar they needed to know what Shnewer and his friends were up to and asked Omar to become an informant. He agreed.
Burim believes that story, like many of the others Shnewer would tell, was a lie.
Omar began coming to the grocery store with increasing frequency to befriend Shnewer. For Shnewer, the older man quickly became a mentor and a confidant. As their relationship developed, they began to discuss politics, religion and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While it’s unclear how the conversations began, it’s apparent from the FBI’s recordings with the informant that Shnewer was receptive to the idea of violence. Shnewer told Omar that that he spent time on the Internet watching graphic combat footage from Iraq.
The informant encouraged his new young protégé, suggesting that Shnewer move beyond listening and talking; it was time to “do something,” Omar said, and the two began floating ideas of what that “something” might be. In August 2006, Omar and Shnewer began discussing the idea of launching an armed attack against Fort Dix military base, close to Trenton, New Jersey.
But only Omar and Shnewer were formulating plans for an attack. In a conversation recorded on August 2, 2006, Omar pressed Shnewer to come up with other recruits for their plot. “You and I are not enough, and you had told me that maybe there could be other people,” Omar said. “Otherwise, we can’t do anything.”
“No, no, no when I tell you I have people, that means I have people,” Shnewer responded. “Listen I will not talk to anyone about matters like these unless I trust them.”
In the same conversation, Shnewer brought up Serdar Tatar, also a close friend of the Dukas, whose father owned a pizzeria near the Fort Dix base. Tartar dreamed of becoming a police officer, and Shnewer knew this, according to the Burim and his parents. Nonetheless, Shnewer offered Tatar up as a possible co-conspirator, mentioning a map of Fort Dix he’d used to deliver pizza from his father’s shop to the base.
Mohamad Shnewer: You know Serdar? Who has the pizzeria close to here?
Mahmoud Omar: So, what are your thoughts about him?
Mohamad Shnewer: He is ready…. he has a map…. he used to deliver there.
Mahmoud Omar: Ready to be killed?
Mohamad Shnewer: Yes!
Two days later, Omar asked Shnewer again about possible conspirators for the attack.
“So who do you have in mind?” Omar asked.
Shnewer replied: “I have Tony, Eljvir and Shain in mind.”
In US criminal law, a conspiracy is an agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime at some time in the future. It is an agreement to break the law; it doesn’t have to be a plan. Once two individuals enter into an agreement, the crime is complete, though some statutes require evidence that concrete steps have been taken. But an individual cannot enter into a conspiracy with a government informant. So unless Shnewer could convince the others to join the plan to attack Fort Dix, there would be no criminal conspiracy.
Omar apparently felt more comfortable approaching Tatar than the Duka brothers and began courting the 23-year-old. He told him of the plot to attack Fort Dix and openly asked for his help: he needed the pizza delivery map.
Tatar, who had since left his father’s pizza shop and moved to Philadelphia, was working at a 7-Eleven when Sgt. Dean Dandridge of the Philadelphia Police Department came by for his daily coffee. On November 15, 2006, Tatar told Dandridge that he believed Omar might be planning a terrorist attack. Neither Tatar, nor Dandridge, had any way of knowing that Omar was an informant.
Dandridge left Tatar’s information with the FBI, expecting the bureau’s agents would be in touch soon. For three weeks, Tatar waited for the FBI to contact him. In the meantime, he recorded at least one conversation with Omar, so that when the authorities did reach out, he would have information to give them. Eventually and inexplicably, after repeated prodding, Tatar gave Omar the map of Fort Dix.
When a Philadelphia police detective assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force spoke to Tatar, he downplayed the threat and refused the audio that Tatar had recorded. The agent asked Tatar if he had indeed given Omar the map. Suddenly scared, Tatar lied. That lie would later implicate him in the conspiracy.
Having succeeded in this haphazard way of ensnaring Tatar, Omar relentlessly tried to persuade Shnewer to set up a meeting with the Duka brothers to discuss “the plot.” But the meeting never seemed to materialize. Time and again, Shnewer found excuses to explain why this didn’t happen. For example, on September 14, 2006, Shnewer, after much hesitation, told Omar that Shain knew about the plot, but not of Omar’s involvement.
As months passed, Shnewer tried to assure an increasingly skeptical Omar that the Duka brothers were on board with the developing plans. When Shnewer failed to provide proof of their actual involvement, Omar pressed harder, asking Shnewer to pursue the brothers, and Eljvir Duka in particular. Between August 11 and September 19, 2006, Omar asked Shnewer about Eljvir 197 times.
Finally, after months of failed efforts, Omar told his FBI handlers that, in his estimation, Tony and Shain Duka knew nothing about the plot and seemed to be more focused on taking care of their families.
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