Ringleader

? James Atalah repeated the word and shook his head. "I don't think so. He was 22 years old."

Atalah stood in a threadbare front room of All City Cab at 12th and Mercy in South Philadelphia yesterday and talked about Mohamad Shnewer, the cabbie accused of organizing a plot to infiltrate Fort Dix and kill as many soldiers as possible.

The picture Atalah drew was of a young man adrift.

When Shnewer proved unreliable at his family's convenience store in South Jersey, his father found him work as a cabbie. Then last month he bought him a 2003 Ford Windstar van to drive.

The younger Shnewer had worked for All City for three months - mostly shifts from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., Atalah said. The only trouble the young man got into was April 22, when a fare he picked up at the airport complained to the Philadelphia Parking Authority that Shnewer had charged him "off the meter." Then the cabbie refused to accept a credit card as payment, according to PPA spokeswoman Linda Miller.

The regulatory authority fined him $450. Shnewer has appealed, but Miller is not sure he'll push the matter.

"I think he has other things pressing," she said.

Lighting up humvees

The Cherry Hill High School West graduate is alleged to have told a government informant in August: "My intent is to hit a heavy concentration of soldiers. . . . You hit four, five or six humvees and light the whole place [up] and retreat completely without any losses."

Another time, an FBI informant said, Shnewer told him that he was not afraid to die, and moreover he aimed to kill at least 100 soldiers by launching rocket-propelled grenades inside Fort Dix.

Authorities arrested him at the airport about 10 p.m. Monday, surrounding his white minivan.

What may have radicalized Shnewer? Atalah can make no sense of it. "A tragedy," he calls it.

In three months, Atalah never saw the young man's face; he just knew his voice and his radio number, 100. But for three years, Atalah has worked with the accused's father, 53-year-old Ibrahim M. Shnewer, a man he does know well. And from the father, Atalah learned that the young man had become harder and harder to talk to.

The conflict was over the store, which is run according to Halal dietary laws and sits opposite Bishop Eustace Prep School on Route 70 in Pennsauken. His son would not show up regularly, his father complained to Atalah.

"He said, 'He does what he wants to do. In this country, you can't tell your own what to do.' "

Atalah said the elder Shnewer had been stunned to hear his son accused of leading five jihadists living in Philadelphia and South Jersey.

"Personally, I think the kid is lost," Atalah said. "He felt a need to do something, but he didn't know what. I think that these three brothers he was involved with washed his brain."

Bad for business

The television was blaring from an inner room, where Atalah's fiancee - company president Diana Perri - dispatched cars while listening in and adding details. She had met the younger Shnewer - "a normal-looking kid, young and tall, sturdy build."

She worried what the news might do to the cab company. Atalah worried about the reputation of Jordanians. Both he and the Shnewers were born in Jordan.

He raised his hands, offering palms to the air. "We are good Christian people," he said of his own family, who have been here since 1990. He's a U.S. citizen. "We believe in this country. We believe in justice and freedom."

He said he could not understand how anyone who had lived in the United States since childhood could become hateful enough to kill. "They have been eating, drinking and living very well their whole lives. How could they turn this way?"

At first he was shocked, he said, then furious when he learned that the terror case centered on one of his drivers.

Atalah's cousin is in the Army Reserve, based at Fort Dix.

"He could have been one of the innocents killed," he said. "Some people are very good. Some people are very bad. The problem is, one bad person can screw up a whole family."

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com. His columns run Mondays and Thursdays. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/danrubin.