William Thomas Cain/Getty Images
FBI agent J.P. Weiss addressed the media outside the Camden Federal Courthouse in May 2007 when the Fort Dix arrests were announced.
FBI agent J.P. Weiss addressed the media outside the Camden Federal Courthouse in May 2007 when the Fort Dix arrests were announced. William Thomas Cain/Getty Images
When the Fort Dix plotters were arrested in May 2007, FBI Special Agent J.P. Weiss painted them in the starkest of terms. They were homegrown terrorists, he said, men who operated under the radar, and they had tried to buy AK-47s and M-16s to attack U.S. soldiers at the military base in New Jersey.
"Today, we dodged a bullet," Weiss told reporters when the arrests were announced. "In fact, when you look at the weapons this group was trying to purchase, we may have dodged a lot of bullets."
On Monday, a New Jersey federal jury agreed. After nearly six days of deliberation, jurors acquitted the five men of attempted murder, but convicted them of conspiring to kill U.S. soldiers. For the FBI, this was a case it couldn't afford to lose. Past attempts to make terrorism arrests pre-emptively — before an actual attack takes place — have met with mixed results.
A More Methodical Approach
"This was, at least compared with other cases, a much stronger and robust case than we have seen in the past," said Karen Greenberg, the executive director of the Law and Security Center at New York University. "The FBI trusts itself more, and therefore there is a greater sense of confidence in their own ability to know these suspected terrorists and anticipate what they are going to do."
Because of that confidence, FBI officials waited. In the Fort Dix case, they held back and allowed the evidence to accumulate, eyeing not just an arrest, but a conviction. Their approach was methodical. Informants infiltrated the group, and FBI agents put the suspects under surveillance, watching and recording them for 15 months. Agents arrested the men only after they bought guns that prosecutors said they needed for the attack.
In previous cases, law enforcement tended to move in earlier. That made convictions hard to come by and cast doubt on whether the cases themselves were even credible, according to University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias.
The Liberty City case, for example, involves six Miami men accused of plotting with al-Qaida to destroy the Sears Tower and bomb FBI offices. Agents arrested the men in 2006 in what was said to be the early stages of planning. The suspects had bought Army boots in preparation, but not guns — and the FBI found out that boots and crazy talk aren't enough to convince a jury. Officials on Monday asked for a third Liberty City trial. It is scheduled to start next month.
Rocco Cipparone is the attorney for Mohamad Shnewer, one of the Fort Dix five. He says his client was entrapped by the FBI's informant. The informant, Cipparone said, "was a fellow Albanian, and he knew that young Albanian men in particular have this real sense of bravado and want to seem strong and aggressive, and he admitted he played on that."
But, he says, bravado and actually intending to attack U.S. soldiers are two very different things. "The jury obviously found that there was conspiracy," Cipparone said. "But I think it also important that the jury also found the men not guilty of attempted murder. And unlike what the prosecutors had said during the initial press conference regarding this case — that an attack was imminent and there was a defined plan — the jury's verdict contradicts that."
Striking The Right Balance
Inside the FBI, officials who want the bureau to allow terrorism plots to play out longer are punching the air. Monday's guilty verdict has made the Fort Dix case Exhibit A for those who say law enforcement has found the right balance between moving too soon and losing a conviction, or waiting too long and risking an actual attack.
Greenberg says Europe has been trying to get the United States to strike this balance for some time. "They have a longer history of dealing with suspected terrorists than we do, and it has taken us longer to get that kind of trust in ourselves," she said.
The five men convicted in the Fort Dix plot could be sentenced to up to life in prison. A judge will decide their fate in April.