Opening Statements To Start In Fort Dix Plot

A jury will hear opening statements Monday in the trial of five foreign-born Muslim men accused of plotting to kill soldiers at Fort Dix, New Jersey. The government is presenting the case as one of the most frightening examples of homegrown terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

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Here in the United States five men go on trial today. They're all Muslims. They're all in their 20s. And they all lived in the Philadelphia area at the time that the U.S. government said they were involved in plot last year. The U.S. said it broke up a terrorist plot to attack soldiers at Fort Dix in New Jersey. And prosecutors say the men were close to carrying out that attack. Defense attorneys contend the government's case is thin, and we have more this morning from Joel Rose.

JOEL ROSE: Mimosa Drive is a quiet street in suburban Cherry Hill, New Jersey, just outside Philadelphia. Steve Squire(ph) has lived on Mimosa Drive for 16 years. And he says from the most part, the Duka family fit right in.

Mr. STEVE SQUIRE (Resident, Cherry Hill, New Jersey): They were roofers. They did the roof across the street. They're - they did a couple of houses along this block. I think they even did the fire department around the corner.

ROSE: The Dukas are ethnic Albanians from former Yugoslavia. They came to the U.S. illegally in the 1990s, and eventually settled in Cherry Hill. The oldest boys work for their father's roofing company. Squire says the Dukas seem like run-of-the-mill neighbors who mostly kept to themselves.

Mr. SQUIRE: Certainly didn't hear any explosions going off or anything like that. I didn't see any war games being played on my street.

ROSE: The government paints a very different picture of the Dukas. Prosecutors say brothers Dritan, Eljvir and Shain were part of a conspiracy to attack U.S. soldiers at Fort Dix. Here's U.S. Attorney Chris Christie announcing the charges at a press conference in May of last year.

Mr. CHRIS CHRISTIE (U.S. Attorney): 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.

ROSE: Prosecutors say two of the Duka brothers were arrested while trying to purchase machine guns. Government says the Dukas and two other men intended to use the weapons in an attack on Fort Dix. Edward Turzanski, an expert on counter-terrorism at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, says whether the plot would have worked is not the point.

Mr. EDWARD TURZANSKI (Counter-Terrorism Expert, Foreign Policy Research Institute): Just because they maybe the keystone cops of terrorism, doesn't mean that they weren't trying to kill people. They had the intent. They had the means. They had the plan, and we preempted that plan.

ROSE: But when it comes to preemptive prosecution, the government's track record has been mixed. And the so-called 4 Dix 5 all insist they are innocent. The case began two years ago, when the Duka brothers went to Circuit City to get an 8mm video from their vacation convert it to DVD. Among other things, the video show young men firing weapons and shouting jihad and other Arabic words. The government contends it was a quote "militia-like training exercise." The Defense Attorney Michael Riley who represents Shain Duka says it's nothing of the kind.

Mr. MICHAEL RILEY (Defense Attorney): That at some points they're shooting their weapons at snow balls and they're acting as if they're movie-style gangsters. It's a lot of a horse play and has no role or connection or relevance to any form of military training.

ROSE: The clerk at Circuit City showed the tape to police. That led to the FBI sending a confidential informant to infiltrate the group. The informant recorded hundreds of hours of conversations with the defendants, recordings that are now crucial to the government's case. At one point, defendant Mohamed Shnewer says on tape quote "my intent is to hit a heavy concentration of soldiers."

Professor EDWARD OHLBAUM (Law, Temple University): The question is going to be not whether the defendants said these things, but what the defendants meant by saying these things. Or why did the defendant say them?

ROSE: Temple University Law Professor Edward Ohlbaum says the defense will likely focus on the credibility of the government's informant and on the context of the recordings.

Mr. OHLBAUM: Were they puffing, were they exaggerating? Were they trying, you know, show how cool they were? Or actually, were they expressing their intention to do all the kind of ugly things that the government says they were planning to do.

ROSE: Ultimately, that's what the jury will have to decide. The government's informant is expected to testify. Some of the defendants may also take the stand. The trial could last until Christmas. From NPR News, I am Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

INSKEEP: It's Morning Edition from NPR News.

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Trial Begins For Men Accused In Fort Dix 'Pizza Plot'

Neighborhood children gather outside the home of alleged terrorist Dritan Duka. i i

hide captionNeighborhood children gather outside the home of alleged terrorist Dritan Duka in Cherry Hill, N.J., on May 8, 2007.

William Thomas Cain/Getty Images
Neighborhood children gather outside the home of alleged terrorist Dritan Duka.

Neighborhood children gather outside the home of alleged terrorist Dritan Duka in Cherry Hill, N.J., on May 8, 2007.

William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Federal Court's Site

Jury selection begins Monday in the trial of five men accused of plotting to infiltrate the Fort Dix Army base in New Jersey. Prosecutors say the group had planned to pose as pizza deliverymen to enter the base and kill soldiers.

In May 2007, when the FBI made the arrests, Special Agent J.P. Weiss said that homegrown terrorists like the men who allegedly planned to attack Fort Dix pose a real and deadly threat because they operate under the radar. "Today, we dodged a bullet," he said from the courthouse steps in Newark last spring when the arrests were announced.

"In fact, when you look at the type of weapons that this group was trying to purchase, we may have dodged a lot of bullets," Weiss said.

An Innocent Video?

The case began with a phone call from a clerk at a local Circuit City. He'd been handed a video to copy onto a DVD. But as he watched it, he became alarmed. It showed 10 young men firing assault rifles at a shooting range, calling for jihad and praising Allah in Arabic.

The clerk called the local police, and they called in the FBI. At trial, prosecutors plan to portray the video as a terrorist training tool.

The defense says it is no such thing. Rocco Cipparone is representing defendant Mohamed Shnewer, one of the six men arrested. He says the talk about a smoking-gun video is overdone.

"Obviously, people at a shooting range fire guns," Cipparone told NPR several days before the trial was scheduled to begin. "These are a number of young men who were essentially clowning around and having a good time, and it is a far cry from a terrorist training video."

Soon after the video was discovered, the FBI had an informant infiltrate the group. Cipparone says the informant egged the group on and tricked them into saying things they really didn't mean. He said the wiretaps and other evidence will bear that out.

"I think that when they are looked at in context, it will be clear that this is a lot of talk and a lot of prodding by the informant — and certainly talk by the defendants — but nothing that was really a valid plot," Cipparone said.

Terrorism cases of this kind seem to have taken on a familiar pattern. The FBI makes arrests, usually of young men who it claims are holy warriors intent on attack. Defense attorneys respond that their clients are all fiery talk and no action. So far, conviction rates have been mixed.

Still, Cipparone says, the publicity makes it tough to seat juries. New Jersey sent out more than 1,000 summonses to find 12 jurors for this trial. Jurors will be brought in in groups of 75 and must answer an 80-item questionnaire.

Cipparone says voir dire interviews — questioning of the potential jurors — probably won't start before next week. "I don't think it will be easy to seat an impartial jury," he said. "We're all going to try our best, but it is a difficult task."

Defendants' Backgrounds Vary

Before they were arrested, the defendants led what seemed to be ordinary middle-class lives. They worked as convenience store clerks, roofers, cab drivers and pizza deliverymen.

One, Serdar Tatar, was born in Turkey. His nickname is Tony, partly because his family operated a pizza parlor near Fort Dix. Yugoslav Eljvir Duka's friends called him Elvis. His two brothers, Dritan and Shain, are also defendants.

The group was arrested while they were trying to buy guns from an FBI informant. Prosecutors say the group was in their final stages of planning, that they had identified their target, done reconnaissance, had maps, and were trying to secure weapons.

"Luckily, we were able to stop that," Weiss said.

One of the men, Agron Abdullahu, has already pleaded guilty to weapons charges. He is serving 20 months in prison.

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