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'Ft. Dix Six' informants in hot seat too

A Justice official admits the 2 men are 'not squeaky-clean.' The trial is seen as a test of FBI tactics.

October 19, 2008|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

CHERRY HILL, N.J. — 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.

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.

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."

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.

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."

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