Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Terror-plot defense: Evidence, not emotion

The lawyers in the Fort Dix case plan a hard look at the tapes and witnesses. One called the public documents only "snippets."

It's a case splattered with the emotional buzzwords of 21st-century America.



Radical Islamists.

But at the end of the day, say several court-appointed attorneys representing the men charged this month with plotting an attack on Fort Dix, it has to be about the validity of the evidence and the credibility of the witnesses.

"These types of cases test the system," said Michael Huff, a Philadelphia lawyer representing Dritan Duka, 28, one of three accused brothers. "They test our integrity as a society. If this is terrorism, do you suspend the rules, suspend the Constitution? . . . No. We treat everybody fairly. That's the strength of this country."

"Everybody has a right to be tried based on the evidence," added Rocco Cipparone, the attorney for Mohamad Shnewer, a 22-year-old Cherry Hill cabdriver who in government documents appears to be the ringleader.

Cipparone, a former federal prosecutor, said he was concerned about a "rush to judgment" given the case's already extensive global media attention.

When the top federal law enforcement official in New Jersey, U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie, says the alleged plot is "the model for post-Sept. 11-era terrorism," the case is going to generate that kind of publicity.

But will that undermine the presumption of innocence and the concept of "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt" - two building blocks of a fair criminal trial - when the case is presented to a jury?

Shnewer, the Duka brothers - Dritan, Shain and Eljvir - and Serdar Tatar were arrested May 7 on charges of plotting an attack on Fort Dix. The Dukas, like Shnewer, live in Cherry Hill. Tatar is a former Cherry Hill resident who lives in Philadelphia.

Agron Abdullahu, 24, of Atlantic County, faces a lesser charge of supplying weapons to the Duka brothers, who were in this country illegally.

All six are being held without bail. An indictment is expected shortly, possibly this week. But a trial is months away.

To date, the only information the defense has received is contained in two public documents, a 27-page FBI affidavit filed with the arrest warrants and a 20-page prosecution memo filed last week in opposition to a motion by Abdullahu's lawyer seeking bail for her client.

The documents provide what one defense lawyer called "snippets" of the case. They are, by legal design, the prosecution's version and interpretation of events.

Eventually the defense will receive more detailed information, including tapes and transcripts of all the conversations secretly recorded by two cooperating witnesses whom authorities insinuated into the group during a 16-month investigation.

Defense attorneys also will be given background information on the witnesses, both described as "paid informants" who had worked for the FBI in the past.

In that regard, the lawyers say, the case is not unlike a major drug or organized-crime investigation that uses informants and wiretaps.

Challenging the meaning of the tapes and attacking the credibility of the informants are standard defense tactics.

One crucial piece of evidence, for example, is the videotape that launched the investigation. The FBI learned of the group only after workers at a Circuit City in Mount Laurel contacted police about a "disturbing" video that customers had asked a clerk to dub from a VCR tape to a DVD.

The tape, authorities said, showed a group of young men firing assault weapons at a firing range "in a militialike style while calling for jihad and shouting in Arabic, 'Allah Akbar,' " which means "God is great."

(All six suspects are foreign-born Muslims. The Dukas and Abdullahu are ethnic Albanians from the former Yugoslavia. Shnewer is Jordanian. Tatar is from Turkey. Most came to this country as young children. Abdullahu was 16 when he arrived here in 1999.)

Within weeks, the FBI had placed an informant in the group and launched an intensive investigation.

The video was made in the Poconos, where the group went in January 2006. The group made a second trip in February 2007, according to the government. Authorities described both trips as training exercises where the men practiced shooting and watched al-Qaeda-inspired "mujahideen and terrorist training videos."

But attorney Lisa Evans Lewis argued at Abdullahu's bail hearing last week that, for her client, at least, the trips to the Poconos were "vacations" with friends. In fact, she said, he took his two younger brothers, ages 18 and 13, along.

Another source familiar with the Duka family's version said last week that the entire video that sparked the investigation would show a group of young men "goofing off."

In addition to the video from the shooting range, that source said, the tape shows the men horseback-riding and fishing.

"Were they going to attack Fort Dix on horseback?" asked the source, who expressed concern that the FBI informants might have done more than just gather evidence.

Neither informant has been identified. One, according to the affidavit, is an Egyptian who claimed to have a military background. He is older - reportedly in his 40s - than the six defendants.

And the affidavit indicates that at least one of the defendants, Shnewer, saw him as a potential leader.

"Shnewer . . . said the group wanted [the informant] to help lead the attack based on [the informant's] prior experience in the Egyptian military."

The same informant, according to the document, pressed Tatar to obtain a map of Fort Dix from his father's pizza shop, which is just outside the base. The informant also arranged for the purchase of assault weapons.

Authorities said Dritan and Shain Duka, 26, were arrested moments after paying for three AK-47s and four M-16 rifles at an apartment on Cooper Landing Road in Cherry Hill in a deal set up by the informant.

But the affidavit also says the Duka brothers and Shnewer backed away from a chance to buy a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher and an M-60 machine gun, other weapons that the informant said he could provide.

Another twist in the investigation is Tatar's alleged role in supplying the map of Fort Dix.

Tatar, according to the FBI affidavit, went to Philadelphia police Nov. 15 with a vague reference to the alleged plot, saying someone he suspected was involved in "terrorist-related" activities was pressuring him to get a map of the military base.

Tatar was present, authorities said, when police contacted federal investigators.

But he denied any involvement when the FBI questioned him three weeks later, just days after he allegedly gave the map to the informant.

"Why would someone who is organizing an attack on Fort Dix go to the Philadelphia police?" asked Richard Sparaco, Tatar's lawyer.

The question underscores some of the confusing and inconsistent information that has surfaced.

But other tapes secretly recorded by the informants appear to support the charges. These include specific references to killing soldiers - at Fort Dix, at other military installations, or, perhaps most troubling, during the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia.

Defense attorneys caution that until those tapes are put in context - until the entire conversation is disclosed - criminal conclusions are speculative.

"Is this a bunch of guys spouting off . . . or is it a real plot?" Cipparone asked.

Michael Reilly, another prominent South Jersey defense lawyer, who is representing Shain Duka, said that until the defense saw and heard all the evidence, it was impossible to draw conclusions.

Despite the dark shadow cast by the specter of terrorism in post-Sept. 11 America, he said, the defendants are entitled to a fair trial.

"All lawyers take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States," Reilly said. "Once in a while, you really have to do that."