(CBS/ AP) Five Muslim immigrants were convicted Monday of plotting to massacre U.S. soldiers at Fort Dix in a case the government said demonstrated its post-Sept. 11 determination to stop terrorist attacks in the planning stages.
The defendants were acquitted of attempted murder charges but face life in prison for conspiring to kill military personnel. The federal jury spent about 38 hours deliberating over the past six days.
"I think the verdicts reflect both the strength and weakness of the government's case," said CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen. "Jurors believed clearly that the men were up to no good, and there was certainly some evidence to support that, but also that they didn't actually do enough to warrant a conviction on attempted murder."
The men lived in and around Philadelphia for years. The government said after their 2007 arrest that an attack had been imminent and that the case underscored the dangers of terrorist plots hatched on U.S. soil.
Although investigators said the men were inspired by Osama bin Laden, they were not accused of any ties to foreign terror groups.
Defense lawyers argued that the alleged plot was all talk - that the men weren't seriously planning anything and that they were goaded by two paid FBI informants.
During the eight-week trial, the government relied heavily on information gathered by the informants, who infiltrated the group and secretly recorded hundreds of conversations.
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.
Convicted were: Jordanian-born cab driver Mohamad Shnewer; 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.
"I don't think we'll see life sentences for any of these men. I think the judge will not go immediately to the high end of the sentencing range and of course how much time they serve also depends upon whether their appeals are successful," Cohen said.
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.
The group's objective was to kill "as many American soldiers as possible," according to prosecutors.
"I think they were in the last stage of planning," then-U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said at the time of their arrest. "They had training, they had maps, and I think they were very close to moving on this."
He added: "This is what law enforcement is supposed to do in the post-9/11 era - stay one step ahead of those who are attempting to cause harm to innocent American citizens."
But during the trial, prosecutors said the men were probably months away from an attack and did not necessarily have a specific plan.
"The men will be sentenced and we'll certainly see an appeal here by defense attorneys who argue that the government's witnesses exaggerated the threat posed by the men and then actually tried to nudge the men into illegal conduct," Cohen said. "This was not nearly the slam-dunk case that prosecutors claimed it was."
The investigation began after a clerk at a Circuit City store told the FBI 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 trial, federal prosecutor William Fitzpatrick defended the government's handling of the case. "The FBI investigates crime on the front end. They don't want to have to do it on the back end," he told the jury.
None of the five defendants testified.