Faten Shnewer stands in front of a large print as she speaks to the media in federal court after her son and four others were convicted of plotting to kill U.S. soldiers.AP photo
Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph J. Marra Jr., center, listens to a question as he stands with other prosecutors in Camden, N.J., after five men were convicted of conspiracy in the Fort Dix case.AP photo
CAMDEN, N.J. — It may be impossible to know whether the five Muslim immigrants convicted Monday of conspiring to kill American military personnel would have attacked at Fort Dix or anywhere else if left unchecked.
Prosecutors say the time to act against terrorist plotters is before blood is shed. But the defense and some Muslim leaders say the men were goaded into tough talk by paid government informants and never would have followed their words with action.
The conspiracy conviction means the jury found that the defendants, who lived in and around Philadelphia for years, had an agreement to kill soldiers and had taken at least one step toward carrying it out. The government did not have to prove the men had a target or a timeline for an attack. The jury acquitted all five suspects on attempted murder charges — which would have required the panel to concluded that the men had taken “substantial” steps toward killing.
“It’s one where we will never know just how far they would have gone,” said Brian Levin, who directs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino.
Levin called the case a textbook example of how the U.S. has gone after terrorism cases aggressively since the Sept. 11 attacks, making arrests before plots can come close to being carried out.
Prosecutors acknowledged the men were probably months away from an attack and did not necessarily have a specific plan. Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra said the aggressive prosecution was the reason the men could not be convicted of attempted murder.
“They cut this thing off and protected our military before it got to the stage where the harm was real or imminent,” he said.
The government said the men were targeting New Jersey’s Fort Dix for an attack but had also conducted surveillance at Fort Monmouth, Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and other military installations, and had talked about assaulting some of those spots. The jury did not have to find that the men had any specific target in mind to convict them.
The yearlong investigation began after a clerk at a Circuit City store told police that some customers had asked him to transfer onto DVD some video footage of them firing assault weapons and screaming about jihad.
The FBI asked two informants — both foreign-born men who entered the U.S. illegally and had criminal records — to befriend the suspects. Both informants were paid and were offered help obtaining legal resident status.
During the eight-week trial, the government relied heavily on information gathered by the informants, who secretly recorded hundreds of conversations.
Faten Shnewer, mother of defendant Mohamad Shnewer, said the verdict was “not justice” because of the role of the informants, one of whom had been convicted of bank fraud and spent more than a year recording conversations with her son.
“They gave him a lot of money to put my kid in jail,” she said.
Mohamad Shnewer’s attorney, Rocco Cipparone, said he believed the informants “shaped the evidence.” Some Muslim leaders said the defendants may not have been guilty of anything more than youthful braggadocio and poor judgment.
“I don’t think they actually mean to do anything,” said Mohamed Younes, president of the Paterson, N.J.-based American Muslim Union. “I think they were acting stupid, like they thought the whole thing was a joke. They don’t look like the type of people to do something like this.”
Prosecutor William Fitzpatrick defended the government’s handling of the case, telling the jury: “The FBI investigates crime on the front end. They don’t want to have to do it on the back end.”
Prosecutors said the men bought several assault rifles supplied by the FBI and that they trekked to Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains to practice their shooting. The government also presented dozens of jihadist speeches and videos that the men supposedly used as inspiration.
“Only twisted criminals would enjoy the videos played in this court,” Marra said. “That’s not just talk.”
Convicted were: Shnewer, a Jordanian-born cab driver; Turkish-born convenience store clerk Serdar Tatar; and brothers Dritan, Eljvir and Shain Duka, ethnic Albanians from the former Yugoslavia, who had a roofing business.
A sixth man arrested and charged only with gun offenses pleaded guilty earlier.
Defense lawyers say the split verdict showed the jury looked at the law carefully. The lawyers said after the case that they would look into appealing the convictions.
U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler scheduled sentencing for April 22 and 23. Government prosecutors can ask him to sentence the men to life in prison.
The jury Monday also found four of the suspects guilty on weapons charges, though one of them was acquitted of one firearms offense.
The government has had a mixed record on terrorism prosecutions since Sept. 11. It won guilty pleas from Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic jetliner with a shoe bomb, and the Lackawanna Six, a terrorist cell outside Buffalo, N.Y. And it convicted Jose Padilla of plotting terrorist attacks.
But a case against four men in Michigan fell apart after a federal prosecutor was accused of withholding evidence. And a case in Miami against seven men accused of plotting to blow up Chicago’s Sears Tower has produced one acquittal and two mistrials.
Prosecutors in the Fort Dix case said the group chose the Army post because one of the defendants was familiar with it. His father’s pizza shop delivered to the New Jersey base, which is 25 miles from Philadelphia and is used primarily to train reservists for duty in Iraq.