The FBI arrested six people, including five in Cherry Hill, in connection with an alleged plot to kill soldiers at Fort Dix that unraveled with an alert store clerk, federal officials said today.
"If you want to do anything here, there is Fort Dix and I don't want to exaggerate, and I assure that you can hit an American base very easily," one of the men told an FBI informant, according to the FBI. "You take a map and draw it and then you calculate that there are areas where there are 100 to 200 individuals . . .
"When you got a military base, you need mortars and RPGs," the man allegedly said.
"My intent is to hit a heavy concentration of soldiers," the man on the tape said. "You hit four, five or six humvees and light the whole place up."
Greg Reinert, a Justice Department spokesman in Camden, described the six as "Islamic radicals . . . who were involved in a plot to kill U.S. soldiers at Fort Dix in New Jersey."
"Their alleged intention was to conduct an armed assault on the Army base and to kill as many soldiers as possible," he said.
The plot unraveled when a store clerk told the FBI that one of the suspects had brought a "disturbing" videotape to copy onto a DVD, authorities said.
"Today we dodged a bullet," said Jody Weis, the senior FBI agent in Philadelphia. "In fact, we dodged a lot of bullets. The unsung hero is that store clerk."
A Justice Department spokesman in Washington noted that none of the suspects is charged with terrorism crimes.
"We have no indication that they were receiving direction from a foreign terrorist organization," said Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd. "However, they were engaged in weapons training, surveilled targets and discussed killing large numbers of servicemen, and so that certainly warranted a strong law enforcement response."
They also targeted Dover Air Force Base, but determined that it was too well-guarded to attack, the FBI said.
"The actions of these defendants posed a real threat to the safety and security of New Jersey citizens," U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said today. "We will remain steadfast in our focus on protecting New Jersey from the terrorist threat among us, whether that threat is against everyday citizens or our men and women in uniform."
During an initial appearance in federal court this afternoon, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Schneider ordered the six men detained without bail. He scheduled a hearing for Friday in Camden.
The men entered court in green jumpsuits and were shackled around the ankles. One of the men, Eljvir Duka, smiled and waved at relatives in the gallery.
Several women in the front row wept as the defendants entered the courtroom. No pleas were entered today.
While training for their alleged Fort Dix mission in the Poconos in February, some of the men allegedly discussed a planned attack on two American warships that were supposedly going to be docked in Philadelphia next year, the FBI said.
During a meeting on March 16, also apparently recorded by the FBI, one of the men said:
"You know where the stadiums are in Philadelphia? There is the Navy base and every year they have the Army-Navy ball game and they come and stay one or two weeks. The Navy base will then be full of people. You see this is an opportunity and the beauty of this location specifically if you have the proper weaponry, is that you can hit it . . ."
Four of the men charged have been living in Cherry Hill and hail from the former Yugoslavia: Mohamad Shnewer and brothers Dritan, Eljvir and Shain Duka.
The others charged are Serdar Tatar of Philadelphia and Agron Abdullahu of Williamstown. One was born in Jordan, one in Turkey.
If convicted, the five charged with plotting to kill the servicemen face up to life in prison, said Assistant U.S. Attorney William Fitzpatrick. Abdullahu is charged only with aiding and abetting, and faces a shorter sentence, if convicted.
The investigation began more than a year ago, according to an affidavit from FBI agent John J. Ryan.
The tipster called the FBI on Jan. 31, 2006, and said that someone had brought a "disturbing" video to have duplicated.
"The DVD depicted 10 young men who appeared to be in their early-20s shooting assault weapons at a firing range in a militia-like style while calling for jihad and shouting in Arabic, 'Allah Akbar,' or 'God is Great.' "
In March 2006, someone cooperating with the FBI infiltrated the group, the FBI said, and began recording his conversations with Shnewer.
On a laptop computer belonging to one suspect, the FBI found a file labeled "19," and "what appears to be the last will and testament of at least two of the hijackers" in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the FBI said.
On July 29, a second FBI informant recorded a meeting with the three Dukas and Shnewer, during which they watched videos on the laptop that included "armed attacks on and the killing of U.S. military personnel," the FBI said.
Three days later, the FBI said, the informant recorded a meeting with Shnewer during which he said the six were part of a "group that was planning to attack a U.S. military base."
"Shnewer explained that they could utilize six or seven jihadists to attack and kill at least 100 soldiers by using rocket-propelled grenades," the FBI said.
Carolee Nisbet, a public information officer at Fort Dix, said: "I understand that they weren't just targeting Fort Dix, that it was a multiple-base plan to attack several bases in the Northeast." She declined to elaborate.
Some of the six men tried to purchase automatic weapons from a local gun dealer before the arrests, sources said.
"These guys were absolutely serious," one official said.
Tatar provided the group with a map to the base, a federal official said.
Their nationalities could not be confirmed this morning, but several are believed to be naturalized U.S. citizens.
At the base this morning, Nisbet said: "They are going to make the security procedures more stringent, but we're not going to increase the threat level. We are just going to make people more aware of their surroundings."
A successful attack on Fort Dix is considered to be highly unlikely. Armed soldiers guard every gate, whose approaches have curbs or barriers that force traffic to slowly snake as they get near.
The soldiers perform "a 100 percent identification check" and conduct random vehicle searches, Nisbet said.
Each gate also has additional security measures that are far from obvious. "We do not publicize this," she said.
Fort Dix is a 13,400-acre military post near Exit 7 of the New Jersey Turnpike in Burlington County. On an average day, there are 15,000 to 16,000 soldiers and civilians. It is a regional reserve and mobilization site, the largest such site in the country.
Fort Dix spokesman David Moore issued a statement this morning that says:
"Security at Fort Dix remains stringent in the wake of arrests of six men who were allegedly plotting a terrorist attack on the post. This alleged attack is a reminder that we are a nation at war, and that each of us must be vigilant and aware of our surroundings . . .
"Mobilization and training continue as scheduled at Fort Dix, which has mobilized and demobilized more than 95,000 Soldiers since Sept. 11.
"Those passing through checkpoints onto Fort Dix will notice more frequent vehicle searches and strict adherence to a 100-percent ID check, which may slow traffic."