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Fort Dix Five: jihad or talk?

In recorded conversations, they talked about finding ways to become part of a holy war. But friends urged caution.

In an artist's sketch, listening to testimony in a Camden courtroom are U.S. District Court Judge Robert Kugler (rear) and the five defendants.
In an artist's sketch, listening to testimony in a Camden courtroom are U.S. District Court Judge Robert Kugler (rear) and the five defendants.Read moreSHIRLEY SHEPARD / Associated Press

The central question in the trial of the five Fort Dix defedants is whether their tough talk about jihad was the chest-thumping of aliented young men or a prelude to murderous action.

Last week's testimony focused almost exclusively on the Duka brothers - Dritan, Eljvir and Shain - who are accused of being part of a plot to attack Fort Dix.

For several days, jurors heard recordings that FBI informant Besnik Bakalli made of the brothers, many during a weeklong trip to the Poconos.

If the jurors have to decide whether the Dukas posed a threat based on those recordings, they face a dilemma.

Throughout the conversations, the Dukas show themselves to be devotees of the most radical interpretations of Islam, willing to bend the religion to meet their views of jihad and world events.

The philosophies and opinions they express often are every bit as ominous as any Osama bin Laden lecture. When they aren't talking about jihad, they're fixated on guns and weapons: how to get them, how much they cost, what they can do with them.

On the other hand, not once on those recordings do the Dukas mention attacking Fort Dix or any other target, despite ample opportunity to turn their conversations from theory to specific action.

There's little doubt, though, that the brothers were itching to "start something," as Dritan Duka said.

They talk extensively about joining their Muslim brothers-in-arms overseas or finding ways to participate in jihad in the United States.

"We just haven't found out how to do it," Dritan Duka said. "That's the problem, because I'm ready."

At times, their most radical statements are parried by other in their group, including codefendant Serdar Tatar.

"Whoever comes against you, you kill them," Dritan Duka said in one recording. "Allah said this religion has to prevail and you have to spread it with a sword until it prevails all over the world."

"No, we don't know about that," Tatar said.

"No, it's clear. . . . It's very clear," Dritan answered.

"You need to be careful, bro," Tatar said.

The Dukas, ethnic Albanians from Yugoslavia, were brought to the United States as children. They grew up mainly in Cherry Hill, and most of their information about war and jihad, they admit on the recordings, came from surfing the Internet.

Some of their friends, though, had firsthand experience with war and violence, and they presented a much less enthusiastic tone on the recordings.

"We're not trying to kill nobody," said their friend Agron Abdullahu, who pleaded guilty in the case to allowing the Dukas to fire his guns.

Abdullahu was a refugee from the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in the late 1990s. His family fled 19 days of bombing, with a 16-year-old Abdullahu put in charge of driving 25 people on a tractor to the Macedonian border.

On the recordings, when the Dukas talked about killing and training as snipers, Abdullahu offered some real-world advice.

"You don't want to see nobody's brain blow up," he said. "Yeah, close up is terrible. Scars you . . . scars you for life."

Even Bakalli, the informant, seemed to be trying to temper the Dukas at times. Bakalli had shot a man in his native Albania in a "blood feud" between their families.

"Much easier to shoot yourself than to shoot somebody else," Bakalli said. "For to pull the trigger on somebody else, man, holy [expletive]."

But the Dukas were not deterred, discussing at times what Islam allows. They decided, for example, that being a suicide bomber is permissible if the target is military.

"No, the thing is, in Islam . . . you are permitted to lie in war," Eljvir Duka said. "Why? So you don't give yourself up."

He also said that Islam is "every good thing, every honorable deed," but that when someone attacks your religion, "then you go jihad."

Discussing the war in Iraq, Dritan Duka contended that the United States was lying about how many Americans had been killed there.

"Who you believe? Mujaheddin or the Americans?" he said. "We know American news is [wrong]. . . . I have seen 3,000 killed by just one sniper."

But the Dukas also said several times on the recordings that all they did was talk, that they were ready to commit to fighting.

"Because I don't like to talk and not do anything, so at least I just tell myself I don't have" the guts, Shain Duka said.

The Dukas, Tatar and the fifth defendant, Mohamad Shnewer, could face life in prison if convicted of plotting to kill U.S. soldiers.

The trial is scheduled to resume tomorrow, with Bakalli continuing his testimony. Bakalli, an illegal immigrant from Albania, was on the stand for four days last week.

He said he had teased the Duka brothers about not being tough because they had been raised in the United States.

"They hate that," Bakalli said.

During one recorded exchange in the Poconos, he poked at the brothers after Dritan Duka said America was "weak" and its citizens were "cowards."

"Everybody you talk to . . . 'I hate this country. I don't want to stay here,' " Bakalli said. " 'I'm leaving. I'm leaving.' But everybody lives here."

"I ain't going to lie. Over here you can work and make money. That's why we don't go," Eljvir Duka said. "That's why we left back home, personally. Back home's a better place."