Suspects changed, neighbors say

Acquaintances saw no sign that men accused in Fort Dix terror plot hated America

May 10, 2007|By Erika Hayasaki and Josh Meyer | Erika Hayasaki and Josh Meyer,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CHERRY HILL, N.J. -- Friends and neighbors of the men charged with plotting a rampage at New Jersey's Fort Dix Army base said yesterday that they had started to notice subtle changes in them: a newly grown beard, a recently built backyard woodshed, talk of leisurely target-shooting practice.

"We would always joke around," said Mario Tummilo, 20, who used to work with suspect Serdar Tatar. They played basketball together and talked about Nikes, rap music and girls. "He was just like a normal American person."

Tummilo didn't think much of it when he brought up hunting season and Tatar - a 23-year-old Turkish national - mentioned that he shot guns in Pennsylvania with friends.

"It all makes sense now," Tummilo said. "They must have been planning this for a long time."

Tatar, who used to deliver pizza, is one of six foreign-born men, characterized by authorities as "radical Islamists," charged Tuesday in the plot that involved a deadly attack with machine guns and semiautomatic weapons.

Those who knew the young suspects say there were no hints that they hated the United States. They seemed to blend right into their quiet communities, taking jobs at the local 7-Eleven or driving a cab.

Tummilo said that Tatar, who prayed during his shifts in the back of his father's pizza parlor, talked about Islamic principles of peace and nonviolence.

Three brothers - Eljvir Duka, 23, Dritan Duka, 28, and Shain Duka, 26 - are ethnic Albanians from the former Yugoslavia who worked at a family roofing business in Cherry Hill. Authorities say they were living in the U.S. illegally.

Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer, 22, a native of Jordan, and Tatar are legal residents.

All five were charged with conspiracy to kill U.S. military personnel, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.

A sixth man - Agron Abdullahu, 24, who was born in the former Yugoslavia and lived as a legal resident in Buena Vista Township, N.J. - was charged with aiding and abetting an illegal weapons purchase.

Yesterday, one Justice Department official said authorities were particularly interested in finding evidence linking Abdullahu to the plot.

Several FBI and Justice Department officials said they were certain that the plot began and ended with the six men in custody - despite some suggestions in court documents that there were other accomplices.

On Mimosa Avenue in Cherry Hill, the blinds on a two-story house where the three brothers lived stayed closed yesterday, and the place appeared vacant as neighbors drove by and slowed to stare and point.

With its stone garden, potted flowers and overgrown grass, neighbors said, it used to be a bustling place where at least 10 people lived.

Han Seung Koh, the Duka brothers' next-door neighbor, said children and older women were part of the household.

The brothers parked old pickup trucks and junk cars in the driveway and on the street, Koh said. Once, he complained that one of the cars had been an eyesore in front of his house for two months.

Erika Hayasaki and Josh Meyer write for the Los Angeles Times.

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