The five defendants in the Fort Dix terrorism trial were described by a federal prosecutor yesterday as dedicated jihadists intent on attacking America.
"Their motive was to defend Islam," Deputy U.S. Attorney William E. Fitzpatrick told the jury in his opening statement in U.S. District Court in Camden. "Their inspiration was al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden."
Fitzpatrick spent about an hour outlining the government's case before an anonymously chosen jury of eight women and four men.
Quoting repeatedly from secretly recorded conversations, he painted the foreign-born Muslim defendants as people who had adopted "a fundamentally violent interpretation of Islam" that justified their plan to attack the fort.
Defense attorneys, in statements that stretched over nearly three hours, offered a decidedly different picture.
Their clients, they said, were young men who had been manipulated by paid government informants into a conspiracy they had no intention of carrying out.
"He talked the talk, but was never going to walk the walk," Rocco Cipparone Jr. said of his client, lead defendant Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer.
Cipparone and the other defense attorneys challenged both the credibility and motivation of the two key government witnesses, Mahmoud Omar and Besnik Bakalli.
Both, he said, were "lifelong criminals" who had reasons to create a conspiracy where none existed.
Omar, an Egyptian national and convicted felon, was paid $238,000 by the FBI while working the case, Cipparone said.
Bakalli, an Albanian national who had twice entered the United States illegally, cooperated in the hope that the government would short-circuit any attempt to deport him, he argued.
Both are expected to testify in the coming weeks.
The trial, before U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler, resumes this morning with testimony from the commanders of several area military bases, including Fort Dix.
The five defendants - Shnewer, 23; brothers Dritan Duka, 29, Shain Duka, 27 and Eljvir Duka, 25; and Serdar Tatar, 25 - face possible life sentences if convicted of the most serious charge: plotting to kill American military personnel.
The Dukas and Shnewer are from Cherry Hill. Tatar is a former Cherry Hill resident who moved to Philadelphia. All five were arrested on May 7, 2007, following a 16-month FBI investigation.
Fitzpatrick detailed that investigation for the jury, highlighting several events that he said supported the charges in the seven-count indictment.
These include the fact that Shain and Dritan Duka were arrested in Omar's Cherry Hill apartment on May 7 after purchasing seven assault rifles from an undercover FBI agent posing as an illegal gun dealer, Fitzpatrick said.
The transaction was picked up on audiotape and videotape and will be played for the jury, the prosecutor said.
In all, he said, the government intends to play about 90 tapes made during the investigation, including conversations picked up on body wires worn by the cooperating witnesses.
The prosecutor quoted repeatedly from tapes in which he said Shnewer touted the attack on Fort Dix, claiming the defendant said of Army personnel, "We are going to put bullets in their heads, God willing."
He said the videos Shnewer had downloaded to his laptop included several that "glorified and treated as heroes those who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001."
And while he acknowledged that the two key government witnesses had "flaws," he urged the jurors to "follow the evidence."
"The FBI exposed a crime. They did not create one," he said. "They found what was already there."
Defense attorneys argued that Omar and Bakalli set up their clients, creating situations and conversations that created the appearance of a conspiracy.
Cipparone described his client as someone who was easily manipulated and who looked up to Omar as a "big brother" whom he wanted to impress.
There are tapes on which Omar, the government's own witness, complains about Shnewer's never following through on things he said or promised to do, the lawyer argued.
Omar was motivated by the cash he was receiving, he added, calling it a "gravy train" that the informant wanted to keep running.
Troy Archie, the lawyer for Eljvir Duka, said that the informants had created a "conspiracy of confusion and conflicting information" and that his client and his brothers had repeatedly rebuffed Bakalli when he talked about violence.
Defense attorneys described Bakalli as a "street tough" who had been convicted in absentia for shooting a man in Albania who was involved in a dispute with his sister.
Michael Riley, the lawyer for Shain Duka, asked the jury not to be influenced by some of the videos it would be shown, describing them as "shocking, repugnant and offensive."
"We're here because of Mohamad Shnewer and his laptop," said Riley, who, like other defense attorneys, described Shnewer as someone who was not taken seriously by his friends and was frequently the butt of their jokes.
The videos included propaganda speeches touting radical Islam and depictions of violence in Iraq, including several jihadist beheadings.
Riley said the prosecution hoped to use those videos to tap into the "visceral reaction" most Americans feel in the wake of Sept. 11.
He urged the jurors to focus instead on the substantive evidence in the case.
The American jury system, he said, requires them to be fair. They are, he added, "defending the Constitution."
Who's Who at Fort Dix Plot Trial
Opening statements were yesterday in the trial of five men charged with planning to kill soldiers on Fort Dix. The suspects were arrested in May 2007 and are accused of attempted murder, conspiracy to murder uniformed military personnel, and weapons offenses.
Here are some details about the key figures in the trial.
Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer, 23, was born in Jordan but has lived much of his life in Cherry Hill. Unlike others in the case, he is a U.S. citizen. He drove a taxicab in Philadelphia and for a time attended Camden County College. He seems to dominate the recordings made by government informants. Authorities say he scoped out Fort Dix and other potential targets.
The Duka brothers: Dritan "Tony" Duka, 29; Shain Duka, 27; and Eljvir Duka, 25. They are ethnic Albanians born in the former Yugoslavia. They're all illegal immigrants but have been living in the United States since 1984, when they were young boys.
Serdar Tatar, 25, was born in Turkey, but went to Cherry Hill High School West. His father owned a pizza shop a few miles from the entrance to Fort Dix that delivered on base; the shop went out of business when customers stopped showing up after the charges were filed.
The defense lawyers
Rocco Cipparone Jr. represents Shnewer. The lawyer with offices in Haddon Heights was a federal prosecutor from 1988 to 1992 and has since become one of Southern New Jersey's highest-profile defense lawyers. He also teaches at the Rutgers University School of Law in Camden.
Michael Huff represents Dritan Duka. A lawyer with offices in Camden and Philadelphia, he represented former Atlantic City Councilman Ramon Rosario in a corruption case.
Troy Archie, who represents Eljvir Duka, is based in Camden. He was a student of Cipparone's at Rutgers.
Michael Riley represents Shain Duka. He was a longtime prosecutor in Burlington County. When he went into private practice in 2002, one of his earliest clients was Fred Neulander, a Cherry Hill rabbi who was convicted of hiring hit men to kill his wife.
Richard Sparaco represents Tatar. Sparaco has offices in Cherry Hill, Mount Holly and Pleasantville. He represented Saul Febo, a drug dealer who testified in the last trial in the federal courthouse that attracted a great deal of attention.
William E. Fitzpatrick, 41, a deputy U.S. attorney, is the top federal prosecutor assigned to Southern New Jersey. He works frequently on political-corruption and drug-trafficking cases. He has also taught at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., and St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
Michael Hammer, an assistant U.S. attorney, has also handled political corruption cases.
Robert Kugler, a Cherry Hill resident, was appointed to the federal bench in 2002 by President Bush. Before that, he served as a prosecutor and a private lawyer and spent a decade as federal magistrate. He has pushed back when lawyers asked to delay the trial. Kugler has also talked about the public's right to know what's happening in the case and has tried to help by having a system set up to post evidence online when it is introduced.