A federal jury convicted five Muslim men Monday of plotting to kill soldiers at an Army base in New Jersey in a case that showed an aggressive FBI effort to infiltrate suspected homegrown terrorist cells.
The five men, all Muslim immigrants who have lived in the United States for some time, were acquitted of the related charge of attempted murder, but could face life in prison for their conviction on conspiracy to kill American soldiers. Sentencing is scheduled for April.
Critics of the government’s anti-terrorism approach said the case amounted to entrapment of angry young men and that if not for the actions of the FBI’s informants, the group of immigrants would have done nothing more than talk about an attack.
However, security experts praised the convictions and the FBI investigation that led to them, arguing that the probe stopped a group of amateur terrorists before they could become experts, execute a plot and possibly spawn other cells.
The case sparked widespread concern because it involved an apparently homegrown group of angry immigrants who had no contact with foreign terrorist organizations and instead found motivation from jihadist propaganda culled from the Internet.
During the 12-week trial in Camden, federal prosecutors argued that the men, some legal residents and some in the U.S. illegally, had planned to attack Ft. Dix, where one of the defendants had made pizza deliveries.
Together they watched anti-American jihadist videos, talked about attacking soldiers and ultimately tried to buy assault weapons through a government informant.
Still, the trial made clear that the five were not professional terrorists. A video showed the accused men shooting assault weapons at a firing range, but revealed that they had little knowledge about how to organize an attack.
James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, said that without foreign expertise, the men were amateurs with few skills.
“These guys were clearly at sea when it came to staging an attack,” Lewis said.
Local Muslim groups echoed defense lawyers’ criticism of the government’s use of informants. The two main informants in the case worked to stave off deportation and were paid thousands of dollars.
One informant told the men about someone in Baltimore who could sell them weapons, and the first arrests in the case took place at that informant’s apartment.
Ian S. Lustick, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, argued that the federal government has repeatedly overreached when investigating and prosecuting terrorism plots.
“We see a pattern across the country of almost no evidence of anything being done that is actually dangerous, but enormous amounts of evidence of the energy and resources put into entrapment,” said Lustick, author of a book on domestic terrorism cases.
In addition to Monday’s guilty verdicts, federal prosecutors won terrorism-related convictions against Richard Reid, the attempted shoe bomber, in 2003; six Yemeni American men arrested in Lackawanna, N.Y., in 2003; and Zacarias Moussaoui, an accused Sept. 11 conspirator, in 2005.
Other cases have been more troublesome. A case against four men in Michigan was thrown out in 2004 after accusations of prosecutorial misconduct. The government was forced to drop charges that Jose Padilla planned to detonate a “dirty bomb,” obtaining a conviction on lesser charges in 2007.
And charges that seven people plotted to blow up the Sears Tower have resulted in two mistrials and an acquittal. Six of the men will go on trial a third time in January.
During the Ft. Dix trial, at which the accused men did not testify, defense lawyers argued that so-called terrorist training was nothing more than a vacation that featured horseback riding, video games, movies and pillow fights. But prosecutors argued that the men were talking about a potential attack before the informant infiltrated their group.
The accused included three brothers from Cherry Hill, N.J.: Dritan Duka, 30, Shain Duka, 27, and Eljvir Duka, 25. The two older brothers, who agreed to buy the weapons through the informant, were also convicted of charges related to the possession of machine guns.
Another Cherry Hill man, Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer, 23, was convicted of conspiracy and attempted possession of AK-47 assault weapons. The fifth man, Serdar Tatar of Philadelphia, was convicted only on the conspiracy charge.
In addition to the five men convicted Monday, a sixth man, Agron Abdullahu, 26, pleaded guilty in October 2007 to abetting the illegal possession of weapons, receiving a 20-month sentence.
After the verdict, defense attorneys expressed disappointment and said they may appeal. Prosecutors said the verdicts show the need for “continued vigilance” against the threat of homegrown Islamic radicals.
“The word should go out to any other would-be terrorists of the homegrown variety that the United States will find you, infiltrate your group, prosecute you and send you to prison for a very long time,” Ralph J. Marra Jr., the acting U.S. attorney for New Jersey, said in a statement.
Lustick, the critic of the prosecution, said he was worried the New Jersey case could encourage more such trials unless the Obama administration takes steps to rein in the federal investigators in cases involving small-time groups.
“This is the same story we have seen many times,” he said. “These are hucksters, big talkers and adolescents.”
Lewis, the security expert, praised the FBI for its proactive approach.
“It is a very aggressive counter-terrorism effort and it seems to be working,” he said.