Foreign-born “radical Islamists” charged Tuesday in a plot to attack Ft. Dix Army base in New Jersey were trying to buy AK-47 and M-16 rifles when they were arrested, and posed a serious terrorist threat, authorities said.
The six men were taken into custody Monday night in and around Cherry Hill, N.J., after two of them allegedly tried to purchase weapons from an FBI informant. They were ordered held without bail pending a hearing Friday.
Details of their alleged plan emerged Tuesday in a criminal complaint and an FBI affidavit filed in federal court, as well as through law enforcement officials.
Christopher J. Christie, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, said the men were in the final stages of a plot started in late 2005, if not earlier.
“They were at the point now where they wanted to obtain the automatic weapons,” Christie said. “That would be the final piece in their plan, the final weaponry they needed to create carnage at Ft. Dix.”
But an FBI official in Washington said there was still much that authorities didn’t know about the men and their intentions. The men allegedly had discussed trying to kill hundreds of people on the base with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
“This is some guys who wanted to get a bunch of guns and shoot up some people. When -- or if -- they were going to shoot, we don’t know,” said the FBI official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the investigation.
The suspects include three brothers, ethnic Albanians from the former Yugoslavia: Dritan, Eljvir and Shain Duka.
Christie said they were living illegally in the United States and working at a roofing business in Cherry Hill.
The other suspects are legal residents: Turkish national Serdar Tatar of Philadelphia; Jordanian-born Mohamad Shnewer of Cherry Hill; and Agron Abdullahu, who was born in the former Yugoslavia and lived in Buena Vista Township, N.J.
All six were described as being in their 20s.
Five were charged with conspiracy to kill U.S. military personnel, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. The sixth, Abdullahu, was charged with aiding and abetting an illegal weapons purchase.
At a news conference, Christie said authorities found no evidence that the men were connected to an international terrorist movement. But he said they had used the Internet to obtain “jihadist material, which they used as both educational and inspirational for their cause.”
Steven Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, said if the men didn’t have connections to Al Qaeda or other groups -- which are watched closely by U.S. and allied intelligence agencies -- it made them all the more dangerous.
“You didn’t have people leaving the country or phone lines from overseas to intercept,” said Emerson, who is an advisor to the U.S. government on terrorism matters. “These were six men who, from out of nowhere, directed themselves to try and kill as many Americans as possible. They trained themselves, they motivated themselves, they did their own reconnaissance.”
J.P. Weis, the FBI special agent in charge of the South Jersey Joint Terrorism Task Force, said authorities “dodged a bullet” by arresting the suspects when they did.
“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,” Weis said. “We had a group that was forming a platoon to take on an army. They identified their target, they did their reconnaissance. They had maps. And they were in the process of buying weapons.
“Luckily, we were able to stop that.”
The case underscores the complexities of America’s post-Sept. 11 domestic counter-terrorism effort, in which the FBI, Homeland Security Department and local police must decide whether to wait until suspected terrorists get close to acting in order to prove their case or move in earlier in an effort to stop them.
In this case, the FBI had been watching the men since January 2006, when one of them brought a videotape into a store in Mount Laurel, N.J., to have it copied onto a DVD. It aroused a store employee’s suspicion, and he called police.
The video depicted 10 young men, including the six suspects, “who appeared to be in their early 20s shooting assault weapons at a firing range in a militia-like style while calling for jihad and shouting in Arabic” God is great, according to the FBI affidavit.
A paid FBI informant was able to infiltrate the group and began taping many conversations with the men -- some by phone, others by wearing a wire.
For more than a year before the arrests, according to the criminal complaint and interviews, the men watched and disseminated jihadist videos -- including the videotaped last will and testament of two of the Sept. 11 hijackers -- as well as messages from Osama bin Laden and footage of U.S. soldiers being injured or killed in combat.
In one instance, some of them laughed at footage that apparently showed a Marine getting his arm blown off, the complaint said.
Christie said the men also conducted firearms training and spent time shooting guns at a range in Gouldsboro, Pa.
The complaint alleged that in late November 2006, Tatar apparently acquired a map of Ft. Dix through his family’s pizzeria so that the group could better spot their targets and make a quick getaway. His associates said Tatar knew the base “like the palm of his hand,” the complaint said.
Much of the evidence against the men comes from tape recordings made by the FBI informant and a second man who was also on the bureau’s payroll.
The informants were not identified, but FBI Special Agent John J. Ryan said in the affidavit that both men, for the most part, had proved reliable in previous investigations.
The primary informant used his experience in the Egyptian military to get in the suspects’ good graces, court records show.
In a taped conversation two months ago, Dritan Duka and Shain Duka allegedly told one of the informants that rather than waging a holy war overseas, they could do it in the United States.
“Shain Duka also stated, ‘Because as far as people, we have enough
Dritan Duka said his friend Tatar “had only one mind -- how to kill American soldiers.”
And Eljvir Duka was recorded as saying: “In the end, when it comes to defending your religion, when someone is trying to attack your religion, your way of life, then you go jihad,” the complaint said.
Federal agents and their informants arranged to sell the men automatic weapons.
When two of the suspects visited the initial informant’s house Monday night to buy the guns, Christie said, agents from the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested them and then went for the other men.
Lawyers for the men were not available to comment Tuesday.
Meyer reported from Washington and Hayasaki from Camden.
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A trail of plots since 9/11
Here are some of the other plots or alleged plots cited by U.S. authorities in recent years:
* September 2002: The “Lackawanna Six,” American citizens of Yemeni descent living near Buffalo, N.Y., are arrested for allegedly having attended an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks. The six plead guilty in 2003 to providing material support to a terrorist organization.
* May 2003: Iyman Faris of Columbus, Ohio, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan, pleads guilty to supporting Al Qaeda. He is accused of planning to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge. He is sentenced to 20 years.
* June 2003: In Virginia, the FBI charges a group of men with being part of a conspiracy to support a holy war overseas. In all, 11 men are convicted in what the government describes as a “jihad network” that used paintball games as a form of training.
* August 2004: U.S. authorities say they have evidence of a years-long plot to attack the New York Stock Exchange and other financial institutions in New York, Washington and Newark, N.J. They also accuse the plotters of planning attacks in England. Eventually, five men plead guilty in London. The alleged ringleader, Dhiren Barot, is convicted. At least one other man awaits trial.
* August 2004: Two men are arrested on the eve of the Republican National Convention in New York for allegedly plotting to blow up a busy subway station. James Elshafay, a U.S. citizen, pleads guilty and testifies against the other man, Shahawar Matin Siraj, a Pakistani. Siraj is sentenced to 30 years in prison; Elshafay receives five years.
* August 2004: Authorities arrest two leaders of a mosque in Albany, N.Y., and charge them with aiding in a purported plot to buy a shoulder-fired grenade launcher to assassinate a Pakistani diplomat. The former imam of the Masjid As-Salam mosque, Kurdish refugee Yassin Aref, and Mohammed Hossain, a mosque founder, are found guilty of counts relating to money laundering and conspiracy.
* June 2005: A Pakistani immigrant and his American-born son in Lodi, Calif., are arrested for allegedly lying to the FBI about the younger man’s training at a camp in Pakistan. Hamid Hayat, the son, is found guilty of supporting terrorism and lying to the FBI. He is seeking a new trial. The case against Umer Hayat, the father, ends in a mistrial; he later pleads guilty to lying to a customs agent about trying to carry $28,000 into Pakistan.
* August 2005: Four California men, one the founder of a radical Islamic prison group, are indicted for allegedly conspiring to attack Los Angeles-area military bases, synagogues and other targets. The men have pleaded not guilty and await trial.
* February 2006: Three men are arrested in Toledo, Ohio, for allegedly providing material support to terrorists. One of the men is accused of downloading videos on the use of suicide-bomb vests.
* April 2006: Two Georgia men are charged with material support of terrorism after allegedly videotaping buildings in the Washington area, including the Capitol and the World Bank, and sending the video to a London extremist.
* June 2006: The FBI announces the arrests of seven men in Miami and Atlanta in what officials call the early stages of a plot to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago and to destroy FBI offices and other buildings. All of the men plead not guilty and are awaiting trial.
Ft. Dix opened in 1917 to train soldiers to fight in World War I. It was named for Maj. Gen. John Adams Dix, a veteran of the Civil War and a governor of New York.
The New Jersey base, about 25 miles east of Philadelphia and 55 miles south of New York City, specializes in training and processing Army Reserve and National Guard members called to active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. It covers 50 square miles in an area known as the Pinelands.
It survived base-closing efforts in 1988 and 1991. In the latest round, in 2005, the base-closing commission decided to create a “mega-base” that would unite Ft. Dix with the adjoining McGuire Air Force Base and Lakehurst Naval Air Station.
Source: Associated Press