Jurors in Camden convicted five foreign-born Muslim men, all raised in Cherry Hill, yesterday of plotting to launch an armed attack on Fort Dix.
Though the jurors found the defendants guilty of conspiracy to kill U.S. soldiers, they acquitted them of attempted-murder charges. No attack was staged, and prosecutors acknowledged that the defendants had no final plan.
The conspiracy convictions carry potential life sentences, which prosecutors said they would seek.
After the verdicts were announced, acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra called the defendants "twisted criminals" and said the verdicts were an affirmation "of what we believed all along."
"These criminals had the intent . . . to do serious and grievous harm to members of the military," Marra said. "It was not just talk."
During the eight-week trial in federal court, the defense argued that the former classmates at Cherry Hill High School West merely talked tough about jihad and never intended to harm anyone.
After waiting more than five days for the verdicts, the defendants walked into the courtroom yesterday smiling and waving to family members, who packed the gallery. They betrayed no emotion as the verdicts were read, and left holding up their index fingers, smiling and waving again.
Outside the courtroom, several of their relatives released a torrent of emotion.
"There are terrorists, but not my son. They know they are not guilty," said Faten Shnewer, mother of lead defendant Mohamad Shnewer. "Because they are Muslims, that's it."
Jim Doolin, the FBI special agent in charge of the terrorism task force that investigated the men, said the case was not based on their race or religion.
"It was based on the words and actions of the defendants," he said.
Those words and actions were never in dispute. Rather, the case hinged on how to interpret them.
Shnewer accompanied FBI informant Mahmoud Omar on what prosecutors called surveillance trips to Fort Dix, McGuire Air Force Base, and other military installations, talking about ways they could attack the bases and kill military personnel.
Shnewer's attorney, Rocco Cipparone, noted that the surveillance amounted to driving up to the front gates of the bases and turning around. He said Shnewer, a driver with All City Cab in Philadelphia, talked about killing only to appease Omar, whom he admired like an older brother.
Defendants Dritan, Eljvir and Shain Duka, brothers who ran a roofing business, were accused of training for their mission by shooting at a Poconos firing range and playing paintball. Dritan and Shain Duka were arrested after trying to buy seven rifles from Omar.
Their attorneys said that the annual Poconos trips were harmless vacations that included horseback riding and swimming, and that the guns were intended only for the firing range.
The final defendant, Serdar Tatar, gave Omar a map of Fort Dix, which Tatar's family kept in the pizzeria it owned near the base.
But Tatar also told Philadelphia police about Omar's requesting the map, and later talked to the FBI. By the time Tatar, who worked at a 7-Eleven on the Temple University campus, spoke to the FBI, he had given the map to Omar and denied having done so.
Tatar's attorney, Richard Sparaco, said his client's denials to the FBI that he gave the map to Omar may have sealed his fate with jurors. Sparaco said his client played along with Omar, hoping to learn his intentions.
"Being a Muslim person made him fearful of the FBI, and that's what caused his downfall," the attorney said.
Much of the case was based on secret recordings made by Omar and another FBI informant, Besnik Bakalli. The defense subjected both to withering attacks on their credibility and accused Omar in particular of shaping and molding the conversations.
Omar, an Egyptian illegal immigrant, had a record of bank fraud and was paid about $240,000 for his cooperation. Bakalli agreed to help the FBI to avoid being deported to Albania, where he said he had shot a man in a family blood feud.
"They give money to the criminal to put these innocent kids in jail," Faten Shnewer said of Omar.
The conversations the informants captured contained many chilling passages, such as Shnewer's talking about shooting down planes leaving Dover Air Force Base, and Eljvir Duka's discussing whether he could stand across from the White House and shoot President Bush.
Defense attorney Mike Riley compared the post-Sept. 11 era to World War II, when Japanese Americans were viewed suspiciously, and said this was a case where young Muslim men with "too much testosterone and bad judgment get themselves into trouble."
Prosecutors said the defendants, who had no connections to terrorists overseas, were inspired by jihadist videos and lectures they downloaded from the Internet.
The videos, seized from hard drives belonging to Shnewer and Eljvir Duka, depicted beheadings and attacks on U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some were produced by the media wing of al-Qaeda.
Jurors watched dozens of those videos, which Riley said had an impact on them.
"They upset the jury greatly. They upset anyone in the courtroom," he said. "It was gruesome, it was horrendous, and it was repetitive."
Riley said he would explore an appeal for his client, Shain Duka. Other defense attorneys said they would focus first on sentencing.
A sixth man arrested and charged only with gun offenses pleaded guilty earlier.
The defense attorneys said the acquittal on the attempted-murder charges showed that jurors had found that the defendants did not go beyond planning. In order to convict on the attempted-murder counts, jurors needed to find that the men took substantial steps toward launching an attack.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said he was not surprised by the split verdict. He said the government is forced to make arrests in terrorist cases before any plot gets too advanced.
"They're put in an untenable position. The situation forces them to move sooner rather than later," he said.
"They err on the side of caution, and sometimes they can't convict on the most serious charges."
Edward Ohlbaum, a professor of law at Temple University, called "conspiracy" an amorphous charge.
"It's the darling of the prosecutors' arsenal," he said. "It's far easier to convict someone for agreeing to do something than for actually doing it."
The jurors, who were chosen anonymously and sequestered during deliberations, declined to speak to reporters about how they arrived at their decisions.
They released a statement through District Court Judge Robert B. Kugler.
"During these last six days, we have held the fate of these five defendants in our hands, and we have not reached our conclusions lightly," they said.
The Duka brothers and Shnewer also were convicted of gun charges. Eljvir Duka was found not guilty of a gun charge related to his brothers' attempt to buy weapons from Omar.
Several of the gun charges against the Duka brothers were brought because they are illegal aliens and are not allowed to possess firearms. The Dukas emigrated to the United States from the former Yugoslavia when they were children.
Shnewer, who was born in Jordan, is a U.S. citizen. Tatar, born in Turkey, is a legal immigrant.
Sentencing for the Dukas has been scheduled for April 22. Sentencing for Shnewer and Tatar has been scheduled for the next day.
Defense attorneys said their clients remained strong after the verdicts were announced but did not have an explanation for why the men held up their index fingers as they left the courtroom.
"Their main concern isn't for themselves but for their families and their children," defense attorney Michael Huff said. "I think they wanted to show them a positive attitude."
After the men were arrested in May 2007, prosecutors characterized the defendants as the face of a new kind of homegrown terrorism.
Marra shied away yesterday from that portrayal, which he called overly broad. Instead, he summoned the thoughts of his Italian-immigrant father, saying his father would have wondered "what the heck is wrong with these people."
"One of the things we have to think about is what made these people so disaffected," he said. "Why aren't they happy to be here, leading productive lives?"