Midday prayers at the South Jersey Islamic Center in Palmyra often have thin attendance, but since the arrest of a handful of its members, attendance has plummeted. The hundreds of congregants who used to show up for Friday evening prayers now number just dozens. People who had prayed there for years are now staying away.
Ejlvir, Shain and Dritan Duka are among six New Jersey men accused of plotting to attack soldiers at Fort Dix. The FBI has said they were part of a homegrown terrorist cell intent on launching a jihad in New Jersey. Agents had been tracking the Duka brothers for more than 15 months before the arrests in early May; since then, Muslims around the mosque have been treading carefully.
"There may be a tendency to believe we are being watched," said Ismail Badat, who is one of the mosque's trustees. He and his wife are founding members of the center and helped buy the two-story former Catholic Church that now houses the mosque.
"Frankly, it is possible we are being watched," he said. "The congregation is open to anybody — you can come and go as you like. We don't sanction anybody before they enter the doors. So people may feel they don't want to be involved."
Members aren't just worried about Muslim extremists infiltrating their ranks; they are worried about undercover FBI agents coming in as well.
Badat and his wife, Naseem, were walking around the mosque with the three Albanian brothers days before their arrest. The couple were pointing out spots in the plaster and on the roof that needed fixing. The brothers were going to start the work the following week. When they were arrested, Badat was stunned.
"They came, they prayed and they left," Badat said about the men. "The question always comes up: what they did outside these four walls, nobody knows."
Afsheen Shamsi is with the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. She said that after the arrests, Muslims in New Jersey were blamed. When Naseem Badat was a guest on a local radio station after the arrests, someone called in and threatened to blow up the mosque. A short time later, a Muslim woman in south Jersey was beaten by a white man who called her a terrorist. He was later arrested. Neighbors who live close to the Center asked the Badats to start screening visitors.
That has put nerves on edge.
"Every time a terrorist plot is averted, we breathe a sigh of relief because this is our home and this is our country, too, and we don't want to see it come to any harm," CAIR's Shamsi said. "But relief is immediately followed by fear — a fear that there is going to be a reaction against the Muslim community."
Concern about reprisals aside, what everyone really wants to know is what caused the six young men to want to attack soldiers at Fort Dix?
The Badats say the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq may well have been a trigger. The men tended to be quiet and kept to themselves. But they did talk about their frustration over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"All I can think of is their aggravation and frustration because of Iraq and Afghanistan," Badat, who is Indian, said. "It is the only reason I can think of. Otherwise, there is no reason whatsoever, no reason why they would be involved in such things."
The Badats are certain that the motivation for the alleged plot didn't come from their mosque. They have a policy: They don't talk about politics. They stick to religion and have "straightforward" sermons, they said.
Meantime, the Badats said they hope that once the Fort Dix arrests fade from the headlines, members will begin drifting back to the Center for their daily prayers. Ismail Badat said he hopes attendance will improve after the summer holidays.