Feds Kept a Close Eye on Fort Dix Suspects

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For more than a year before they moved in to make arrests, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies tracked the men accused of plotting to attack the Fort Dix Army base in New Jersey.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This week, the Department of Justice announced the arrest of six Muslim militants they said were plotting to attack the Fort Dix Army base in New Jersey. Prosecutors said the arrest was the culmination of a 15-month undercover operation.

NPR's FBI correspondent Dina Temple-Raston is here to explain how that investigation unfolded and what's likely to happen next. Good morning.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Good morning.

ROBERTS: Fifteen months, how does the FBI go about setting up an investigation of that size?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it's interesting because the first thing they actually did when they got this videotape is they questioned the clerk. They were concerned that this was some sort of vendetta. And once they had decided that, in fact, the clerk hadn't been involved and had no - and was just being helpful, they followed up on common-sense leads. The kind of things that reporters would do, you know, looking for a phone number that the customer might have left, or credit card information or an address or a name.

ROBERTS: And this videotape, just to clarify, was something that had been dropped off to be copied?

TEMPLE-RASTON: It had been copied to be a DVD. And investigators say that they wanted it made to a DVD so they could actually use it as a recruitment tool.

ROBERTS: And what was on the video?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Specifically, what was on the video was 10 men who were actually using assault weapons. And they were out in the woods, and they were calling for jihad. And this immediately made the clerk nervous, and he called the local police, who then called the FBI and got them involved.

ROBERTS: So once they determined the clerk actually wasn't involved, what happened next?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, typically, in the FBI, there are three stages of an investigation. There's a threat assessment. There's a preliminary investigation. And then there's a full investigation. And they don't start with all the high tech tools that we think about like wiretaps. Instead, they look for clues from the videotape itself. They look for faces. They look for names used or license plate numbers on the car.

And then they go to police records and they look for tickets. For example, three of the suspects were brothers, the Dukas. They were ethnic Albanians. And they were what police call serial unlicensed drivers. They didn't have licenses. They got lots of tickets for driving without a license. And then, in 2002, the brothers apparently pled guilty to minor drug charges. They followed these kinds of leads. All this helps the FBI put together a picture of these guys.

And my sources say that it went to a full-blown investigation from a preliminary investigation quite quickly, and that's when they got national security letters and started tapping phones and looking for emails in connections with other jihadists internationally.

ROBERTS: So with all of that information, were they able to determine how serious a threat these guys actually were to Fort Dix?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it's interesting, because what they said is - while we've heard a lot about one of the suspects actually being a pizza delivery guy who went into Fort Dix quite a bit and supposedly knew the fort like the back of his hand, it would have been a lot harder for these guys to get into the fort than they thought it was. And, in fact, they thought they were talking big and weren't going to be able to do this.

So their concern was that - what they would eventually trying to do is go to a chokepoint, what they call a chokepoint, at Fort Dix. So while people were waiting to go on to base in the morning and they were all lined up, maybe they would take shots at people then, like they did at the CIA some years ago.

ROBERTS: So they actually have a videotape of these men talking about jihad. Ultimately, they bought some weapons. Why did it take so long to arrest them?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they've been watching them for some time. They've been watching them for 15 months. And there was a specific reason why they were doing that. They were watching them 24/7, so they weren't going to be able to do something without the police knowing about it or the FBI knowing about it, but more they wanted to establish is international connection. For example, they bought guns from an FBI informant. And they also got guns from someone else. They wanted to know who those people were, and that's why they let it stretch so long.

They were concerned, though, that their informant was actually going to be compromised, and that's why they arrested them when they did.

ROBERTS: So what's next?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, what's next is this is where they get to push hard. Before, they had to be careful, because they didn't want to compromise an undercover operation. But now the six have lawyers. They start playing the six against each other. And then remember that there were 10 guys on the video, so there are four other guys out there who also might be helping with the investigation.

ROBERTS: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Thanks so much for coming in.

TEMPLE-RASTON: My pleasure.

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Fort Dix Arrests Followed 15-Month FBI Probe

The investigation that culminated in the arrest of six Muslim men for allegedly planning to attack the Fort Dix Army Base in New Jersey was a 15-month affair in which FBI agents watched the men around the clock, trying to figure out whether their plot involved al-Qaida or any other international terrorism group.

Agents say they have not been able to establish any link between the men and outside terrorist groups. But the process they followed for more than a year is typical of the kind of criminal investigations law enforcement officials do in the post-Sept. 11 world.

FBI agents began the case by interviewing a clerk at Circuit City. He had called authorities about a videotape a customer had brought in that showed 10 young men shooting assault rifles in the woods and calling for jihad. Law enforcement officials needed to establish whether the clerk might have been part of the group or had some vendetta against the men on the tape.

Once it became clear that there was no connection, the clerk became a valuable source of information. He could answer key questions about the man who brought in the videotape. Did he use a credit card to pay for the purchase? Did he leave a name, phone number or address? The early stages of an FBI investigation begin in much the same way regular beat cops conduct a criminal investigation.

Then agents tried to ferret out clues from the videotape itself. They wanted to see faces, license plates or partial license plates. They tried to identify names from the tape's audio. They did a criminal background check and found out that several of the suspects were habitually ticketed for driving without a license. Two others had been busted on minor drug charges seven years ago. They all seemed to live in the Cherry Hill, N.J., area. These bits and pieces of information help investigators begin to connect the dots.

In this case, for example, they matched an earlier complaint about automatic weapons fire in the Poconos with the details of the videotape, and that helped investigators pinpoint where the men went to train. Then authorities put surveillance equipment there so they could get their own footage of the men's activities.

FBI sources said their preliminary investigation quickly became a more serious, full-blown investigation requiring National Security Letters and wire taps. They began looking at the men's e-mails and considering possible connections with jihadists overseas.

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