Alleged plot at Fort Dix called serious threat

6 suspected militants arrested after attempt to buy weapons

May 09, 2007|By Josh Meyer and Erika Hayasaki | Josh Meyer and Erika Hayasaki,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CAMDEN, N.J. -- Six foreign-born Muslims charged yesterday in a plot to attack the Fort Dix Army base in New Jersey were trying to buy AK-47 and M-16 automatic rifles when they were arrested, and they posed a serious terrorist threat, authorities said.

The men were taken into custody Monday night in and around Cherry Hill, N.J., after two of them allegedly tried to purchase the weapons from an FBI informant. The men were ordered held without bail by a federal judge in Camden, pending a hearing Friday.

Details of their alleged plan emerged yesterday in a criminal complaint and an FBI affidavit filed in federal court and in comments from law enforcement officials. They described the kind of logistical arrangements and other activities that would seem to distinguish those bent on actually launching a terrorist strike from militants who are merely angry and disaffected with the United States.

Christopher J. Christie, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, said the men were in the final stages of a plot that began 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 Fort Dix."

One FBI official in Washington, however, noted that much was still not known about the men and their intentions, even though they had discussed trying to kill potentially 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 the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the continuing investigation publicly.

Other authorities were more dire in their assessments of the group, which included three brothers who are ethnic Albanians from the former Yugoslavia - Dritan, Eljvir and Shain Duka. Christie said the three brothers were living illegally in the United States and working together in a roofing business in Cherry Hill.

The others charged in the case were legal residents: Turkish national Serdar Tatar of Philadelphia, Jordanian-born Mohamad Shnewer of Cherry Hill and Agron Abdullahu, who was also born in the former Yugoslavia and lived in Buena Vista Township. Shnewer worked as a cabdriver in Philadelphia, while the other two worked in a convenience store and a supermarket.

All six men were described as being in their 20s.

J.P. Weis, the FBI special agent in charge of the South Jersey Joint Terrorism Task Force, said authorities "dodged a bullet" in arresting the men 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 at a news conference yesterday. "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."

The case underscores the complexities of the domestic counter-terrorism effort in the post-Sept. 11 environment, in which the FBI, Homeland Security and local police must decide whether to wait until suspected terrorists get close to acting to prove their case or whether they should 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 took a videotape into a video store in Mount Laurel, N.J., to have it copied onto a DVD. It immediately aroused a store employee's suspicion, and he called local police.

The video depicted 10 young men, including the six suspects, "who appeared to be in their early twenties shooting assault weapons at a firing range in a militia-like style while calling for jihad and shouting in Arabic "Allah Akbar" [God is Great], according to the criminal complaint and FBI affidavit.

Soon a paid FBI informant had infiltrated the group, and he began taping many conversations with the men - some by phone, others by wearing a wire.

Between early 2006 and this month, 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, according to the complaint and interviews.

The group also conducted firearms training and spent time shooting at a range in Gouldsboro, Pa., Christie said.

The complaint alleged that Tatar acquired a map of Fort Dix in late November 2006, apparently while delivering food to the base from his family pizzeria, Super Mario's, so they 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.

About 130 soldiers from the Maryland National Guard are training at the fort. Mobilized last month, the troops are among 1,300 guardsmen from Maryland units heading to Iraq this summer.

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