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Jihadists or just tough talkers?

Jurors soon will be handed the task of determining what was in the minds of the Fort Dix defendants.

Judge Robert B. Kugler presides over the trial of defendants (from left) Shain Duka, Eljvir Duka, Dritan Duka, Serdar Tatar and Mohamad Shnewer in this artist's sketch from October.
Judge Robert B. Kugler presides over the trial of defendants (from left) Shain Duka, Eljvir Duka, Dritan Duka, Serdar Tatar and Mohamad Shnewer in this artist's sketch from October.Read moreSHIRLEY SHEPARD / Associated Press

What did the Fort Dix defendants intend to do?

Launch an armed attack on the Army base, as prosecutors have alleged? Or, harmlessly fire guns at a shooting range while talking tough about jihad, as the defense has argued?

With closing arguments in the case slated to begin tomorrow morning, jurors soon will be handed the task of determining what, exactly, was in the minds of the five defendants.

As District Court Judge Robert B. Kugler said this week, "this is all coming down to what the jury believes as to the intent of these young men."

"There is plenty of evidence on both sides," he added.

No doubt, the men talked - and talked constantly - about jihad, weapons and striking back at American forces, either in the United States or abroad.

Two FBI informants captured hundreds of hours of conversations with the defendants, and many of the discussions were dominated by those topics.

Defense attorneys most likely will remind the jurors that talking isn't illegal.

The jurors' instructions on the law, which Kugler read Thursday, also say that merely thinking about killing U.S. soldiers isn't enough to convict.

"You must find . . . that a particular defendant's mental state passed beyond the stage of thinking about the crime to actually intending to commit it," the instructions said.

If convicted, the five men could face life in prison for the most serious charges of conspiracy to kill U.S. soldiers and attempted murder.

All five are foreign-born Muslims who came to this country as children and were raised primarily in South Jersey. Brothers Dritan, Eljvir and Shain Duka are illegal immigrants from the former Yugoslavia. Mohamad Shnewer was born in Jordan and is the only U.S. citizen among the group. Serdar Tatar was born in Turkey and is a legal U.S. resident.

None of the defendants chose to testify at trial.

Prosecutors said the men were inspired to plan an attack by watching violent jihadist videos and radical Islamic lectures downloaded from the Internet.

The defense countered during the course of the trial, which lasted eight weeks, that the men never formulated a final plan to attack the base.

"I anticipate the government to argue they couldn't wait that long," the judge said this week.

The men were arrested on May 7, 2007, after Dritan and Shain Duka attempted to buy guns supplied by an FBI informant.

Other defendants - including Shnewer - didn't know the Duka brothers were buying guns, which the defense has argued were intended only for target practice.

To convict on the conspiracy charge, the jurors don't need to find proof of a plan, only proof of an agreement.

In one recorded conversation, Shnewer listed all four of his codefendants as willing participants in a jihadist attack.

"That's enough evidence in and of itself," Kugler noted this week, when the defense sought to dismiss the conspiracy charge.

The defense has tried to portray Shnewer as a "loudmouth," who was not taken seriously by his friends and was often the butt of their jokes.

Prosecutors also listed 30 "overt acts" the men took to further their alleged plan - everything from Shnewer sharing an jihadist DVD at the beginning of the investigation, to the two Dukas attempting to buy the rifles at the end.

While the men often acted separately, the prosecution has stitched these overt acts together in an attempt to show an overall plan.

Shnewer, along with FBI informant Mahmoud Omar, drove past Fort Dix, McGuire Air Force Base and other military installations in what prosecutors called "surveillance."

Tatar gave Omar a map of Fort Dix from his family's pizzeria, which delivered to the base. Omar gave the map to Shnewer, who hid it in the bottom of his closet.

The Dukas fired guns at a Poconos shooting range and played paintball, which the prosecution called "training" for jihad.

The defense, which accused Omar of goading the men into taking many of these steps, had far different characterizations.

Shnewer's surveillance, they noted, amounted to driving to the front gates and turning around.

The map Tatar gave to Omar could be found on the Internet. Tatar also approached a Philadelphia police sergeant after Omar requested the map and later talked to the FBI about him.

And the Dukas' firearms training was so rowdy and chaotic that Besnik Bakalli, the second informant who accompanied them to the range, called his FBI handler to complain about how dangerous it was.

Closing arguments are expected to last through Tuesday.

Both sides likely will rely heavily on the defendants' words, secretly recorded by the informants, to frame their final statements.

Prosecutors have far more material. The defendants talked repeatedly about ways to launch an attack, espoused the most radical views of Islam and made countless inflammatory statements about killing U.S. soldiers.

On a few occasions, however, they seemed to demur from their radical line, pronouncing themselves full of talk and lacking the guts for real, armed jihad.

"We are going to end up in jail for 30 years, 40 years for doing nothing, just talking," Dritan Duka said in one recorded conversation.

This week, jurors must decide if the men were all talk, or something more.