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6 charged in plot to strike Army base

The FBI says the 'radical Islamists' wanted to 'shoot up' Ft. Dix in New Jersey.

May 09, 2007|Josh Meyer and Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writers

CAMDEN, N.J. — 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.

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