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‘Ft. Dix Six’ informants in hot seat too

Times Staff Writer

One is a bankrupt convicted felon who spewed venomous hatred about the United States, hooked up an alleged terrorist cell with semiautomatic weapons and drove the surveillance car as they cased military bases. The other boasted of killing someone back home in Albania and vowed to kill others or blow himself up in a crowd of people now that he was in the United States.

But Mahmoud Omar and Besnik Bakalli aren’t members of the so-called “Ft. Dix Six,” five of whom go on trial Monday for allegedly conspiring to gun down military personnel at the sprawling South Jersey base in a jihad-inspired attack last year. They’re the FBI informants who are instrumental to the government’s case against the group.

Information surfacing about the two men on the eve of one of the most high-profile U.S.-based terrorism trials since Sept. 11 all but guarantees that they will be put in the hot seat nearly as much as the defendants, along with their FBI handlers.

Omar, 39, is a fast-talking Egyptian who fixed and sold used cars out of his South Jersey apartment building parking lot. He was paid as much as $150,000 -- and possibly more -- by federal authorities for infiltrating a group of young, foreign-born Muslims in this prosperous Philadelphia suburb after authorities became suspicious of them in early 2006.

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For 16 months, Omar talked tough, boasting of his exploits as an Egyptian military officer, a drug dealer and a petty criminal who sneaked into the United States through Mexico in the 1980s, according to wiretapped conversations as well as the brother of three of the defendants. That brother participated in some of the alleged activities in question but has been cleared of wrongdoing.

Bakalli, who is about 35, talked even tougher than Omar, bragging constantly about how he was not afraid to die. Previously known only as “confidential witness 2,” Bakalli’s name surfaced for the first time last week in court papers.

“Besnik was the only one talking about wanting to shoot people, to blow them up, and we kept saying, ‘Why would you want to do that? It’s forbidden in our religion,’ ” said Burim Duka, 17, an ethnic Albanian Muslim whose three brothers are among those on trial. “And he’d say, ‘What are you so scared of?’ ”

Duka says the informants created the conspiracy out of nothing, fingering his brothers and two of his friends as participating in a terrorist plot when such a plot never existed.

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The government’s case does not rely solely on informants. In hundreds of hours of tapes, the defendants allegedly discuss attacking Ft. Dix, other military bases, the White House and civilian targets such as the Philadelphia airport.

Prosecutors say they can show that the men took steps to further the alleged plot, including purchasing semiautomatic weapons, conducting surveillance, obtaining a map of Ft. Dix, and engaging in tactical training by playing paintball in the woods. They allegedly steeled themselves by watching videos of beheadings.

One Justice Department official involved in the case -- who spoke on condition of anonymity, lacking authorization to discuss pending cases -- said prosecutors would be the first to acknowledge that Omar and Bakalli are “not squeaky-clean,” but they argue that the informants’ background has no bearing on the defendants’ complicity in the plot.

“You have to remember that this is a tape case, so it doesn’t matter if he’s a liar or a scumbag,” the official said in reference to the informants. “We’ll just put in the tapes and play it for them.”

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One of the original six defendants has pleaded guilty to lesser gun-related charges. Now, Dritan, Shain and Eljvir Duka, all in their 20s, potentially face life in prison, along with Mohamad Shnewer and Serdar Tatar.

All five are charged with attempted murder and conspiracy to murder military personnel, and all but Tatar also face weapons charges. They were arrested in May 2007 after two of the Duka brothers allegedly bought automatic weapons in a deal set up by Omar.

Legal experts say the trial will test the use of “cold inserts,” informants who insinuate themselves into a group of suspects, usually for money or in exchange for making legal or immigration problems disappear. It is a controversial tactic that has been used with increasing frequency and some success since Sept. 11. Critics say it has the potential for far more abuse than the traditional law enforcement tactic of “flipping” someone who is already part of a conspiracy.

Defense lawyers say the informants skillfully took the anger and Islamic fervor of hotheaded young men and twisted it into a terrorist plot so that they could get paid a lot of money, get out of legal trouble and possibly avoid deportation from the United States.

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Shnewer, for instance, said that with a map of Ft. Dix, where U.S. troops go before shipping out to Iraq, as few as six men could “light the whole place [up] and retreat without any losses.”

“There is no doubt that there is tough talk by the defendants on these recordings,” said Rocco Cipparone Jr., lawyer for the 23-year-old Shnewer. “The question is whether it is real talk or a lot of hot air and testosterone. I believe the picture that emerges will be consistent with the latter.”

Federal officials would not confirm the identities of the informants but defended the use of them, saying that people with checkered pasts are often the only ones who can infiltrate a suspected terrorist cell without raising suspicion. They also said the FBI has in place an extensive and recently improved system of safeguards for monitoring them.

The FBI deployed Omar first, shortly after it obtained a family videotape of all four Duka brothers and the other defendants firing what appeared to be semiautomatic weapons at a Pennsylvania firing range and shouting “Allah akbar,” or “God is great.”

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By then, Omar had filed for bankruptcy, had served several months in prison for bank fraud and was facing deportation for the second time.

Omar met the defendants most Friday evenings at a local mosque, and they talked politics and philosophy over coffee at a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts.

Bakalli was introduced to the Dukas a few months later by a fellow Albanian who said he was recently divorced and needed help and some new friends, Burim Duka said.

It does not appear that the two informants knew each other or that they both were working for the FBI.

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“We treated them like our family. We let them sleep over, everything,” Duka said.

He said that Omar liked to regale the group with tales of how he would steal people’s bank information and use it to buy and sell Mercedes-Benz automobiles and that Bakalli bragged about how he wanted to blow himself up in a crowd of people and how he had killed someone in Albania.

Duka’s mother, who asked that her name be withheld, said that one of her other sons told her, after his arrest, that Bakalli had been in trouble with the law and that authorities were using that as leverage to turn him into an informant and that all of his boasts would be introduced at trial. “It is on the recordings,” she said.

“We will have a field day on cross-examination,” said Eljvir Duka’s defense lawyer, Troy A. Archie.

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Cipparone has also submitted a declaration from Gregory D. Lee, a former Drug Enforcement Administration supervisory agent with 31 years of experience working with informants, who found a host of problems in the government’s oversight of Omar.

Lee said that an “inordinate” number of conversations went untaped by Omar and that during other conversations Omar turned the hidden recorder on and off -- possibly downplaying or excluding potentially exculpatory evidence and manipulating what was recorded to make the defendants look guilty.

He also wrote that a close acquaintance of Omar now says that while undercover, Omar “continued to commit crimes, including but not limited to defrauding persons in business transactions and obtaining and using illegal drugs.”

He continued: “Indeed . . . [Omar] revealed his cooperating status to this person and even demonstrated evading cameras in his home while engaging in the use of illegal drugs during the course of the investigation so his handlers would not find out.”

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josh.meyer@latimes.com


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