Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Words on tape at heart of Dix trial

Throughout the eight weeks of testimony in the Fort Dix trial, the two sides have relied heavily on the words of the defendants themselves, captured by FBI informants wearing body wires, to make their cases.

Throughout the eight weeks of testimony in the Fort Dix trial, the two sides have relied heavily on the words of the defendants themselves, captured by FBI informants wearing body wires, to make their cases.

That did not change yesterday, as closing arguments began in one of the country's most prominent cases of so-called domestic terrorism.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Hammer began his remarks by displaying some of the defendants' most inflammatory statements about jihad, radical Islam, and their alleged plan to attack the South Jersey Army base.

"Despite the defense counsels' best efforts to redefine those words and recast them as harmless banter, those words do not change," Hammer said. "The defendants meant what they said."

Among those statements were defendant Mohamad Shnewer's describing how easily Fort Dix could be attacked:

"You hit four or five humvees and light the whole place up and retreat without any losses."

Defense attorney Rocco Cipparone parried with other words of his client's - Shnewer's continually making excuses for why he could not take serious action in the plot.

Cipparone said his favorite excuse was Shnewer's begging off attending a meeting to discuss a map of Fort Dix because he had to get his hair cut.

"It's a feeble excuse to be polite," he said.

Cipparone again attacked FBI informant Mahmoud Omar, who recorded hundreds of conversations, as a "manipulator" and "substantial, serial fraud artist."

Omar, who was convicted of a federal bank fraud in 2002, was paid nearly $240,000 for his cooperation.

"He wasn't a lamppost in a room recording what's on Mohamad Shnewer's mind," Cipparone said. "He was molding and shaping and developing the conversation."

He said Omar acted like an older brother to Shnewer, who was 16 years younger, and played on the cultural deference to elders expected in Arabic culture. He said Omar prodded Shnewer with deadlines to take action but Shnewer kept giving him excuses to delay.

"He didn't want to go through with it," Cipparone said.

Hammer, though, pointed out the times when Shnewer suggested to Omar targets and tactics, such as firing a missile at the annual Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia.

"The defense wants you to believe that Mohamad Shnewer is this malleable, almost pathetic, figure," he said. "If you believe that, it's a lot easier to believe that if not for Mahmoud Omar, he wouldn't have done this."

Shnewer and his four co-defendants, brothers Dritan, Eljvir and Shain Duka and Serdar Tatar, could face life in prison if convicted of the most serious charges.

Closing arguments will continue today with remarks from the attorneys representing the Dukas and Tatar, followed by the government rebuttal.

All five defendants are foreign-born Muslims raised in South Jersey. Prosecutors said they were inspired to plan an attack by jihadist videos and lectures they downloaded from the Internet.

Jurors watched many of those videos, taken from hard drives belonging to Shnewer and Eljvir Duka. They included some produced by al-Sahab, the media wing of al-Qaeda.

Cipparone called the videos "emotional red herrings" meant to inflame the jurors. Hammer said they showed the defendants' state of mind and explained their motive for planning an attack.

Hammer again noted the actions that he said each defendant took to further the plan.

Shnewer surveilled Fort Dix, McGuire Air Force Base, and other military installations looking for a target, he said.

The Dukas shot at a firing range and played paintball to "train" for their mission, he said. Dritan and Shain Duka arranged to buy seven rifles from Omar.

Tatar, whose family owned a pizzeria near the base, gave Omar a map of the base. Omar handed over the map to Shnewer, who stuck it in the bottom of his bedroom closet.

Hammer told jurors the government did not need to prove the defendants had a specific plan or time frame in order to convict them of forming a conspiracy to kill U.S. soldiers.

"Even if it was just talk, it is powerful evidence of a conspiracy," he said.

He also said the men could be convicted of attempted murder even if they never completed the plot and didn't have a time frame to launch an attack.

He said there was no doubt that Shnewer, for example, wanted to kill soldiers.

"It's proven by what he said, what he did, and what he possessed," Hammer said.

The defense has said their clients' actions were not as nefarious as the prosecution has portrayed them. Shnewer's surveillance, Cipparone noted, amounted to driving up to the gates of the bases and turning around.

Shnewer didn't take any pictures or videos on those trips, and he never discussed his surveillance with anyone other than Omar. He also never discussed the map of the base that he kept in his closet, Cipparone said.

He also addressed the notion that the Dukas and Shnewer were training for jihad during a trip to the Poconos in February 2007.

Although the men visited a firing range several times, a second informant who accompanied them, Besnik Bakalli, was so alarmed by the rowdy and disorganized shooting that he called his FBI handler to complain.

The FBI agent told him to turn off his recorder. Cipparone said that was "because what he was recording wasn't helpful to the investigation."

Cipparone also juxtaposed FBI surveillance video of the men sitting around their rented mountain home with jihadist videos of masked mujahideen fighters exercising and practicing martial arts.

"This is not training, a bunch of guys sitting around watching videos, couch potatoes," Cipparone said. "It makes the contrast between serious-minded people . . . and Mohamad, who wants to sit around and talk about it."