Muslim pilgrim throw pebbles at a stone pillar representing the devil, during the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Monday, Dec. 8, 2008. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
The five defendants were found guilty Monday in federal court in Camden of conspiring to kill military personnel. But they were acquitted of attempted murder after prosecutors acknowledged the men were probably months away from an attack and did not necessarily have a specific plan.
The arrests in 2007 and subsequent trial tested the FBI's post-Sept. 11 strategy of infiltrating and breaking up terrorist plots in their earliest stages.
"It seemed to me as if the case was pretty flimsy," said James Yee, the former Muslim chaplain at the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba who was arrested in 2003 and charged with mishandling classified material and other crimes in a suspected espionage ring. The criminal charges were later dropped.
"It seems like these guys under normal circumstances weren't going to do anything until a government informant initiates contact with them and incites them," Yee said.
"All of this doesn't help build trust with the American Muslim community, and that is vital if our law enforcement is going to fight terrorism," he said. "If anyone can improve security, it's our community, but we need to be seen as trusted partners, not potential suspects."
"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," he said of the defendants.
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.
Prosecutors said the defendants 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.
"Many people in the Muslim community will see this as a case of entrapment," he said. "From what I saw, there was a significant role played by the government informant."
The defendants, who lived in and around Philadelphia for years, 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.
The men could get life in prison when they are sentenced in April. Four were convicted of weapons charges. A sixth man arrested and charged only with gun offenses pleaded guilty earlier.
Fuat "Mike" Mamo, of Cresskill, said the Albanian community in New Jersey feels ashamed of the three Albanian brothers who were convicted.
"I don't know what they were thinking," Mamo said of the Duka brothers. "They were just out of their mind and they should be put away for life. The Albanian community is nothing like this.
"We come from a country that has a reputation for religious diversity and tolerance. To go against the American government - that's unacceptable to our community."
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."
Members of the jury would not speak to reporters after the verdict.
Sues said the case turned on the legal definition of conspiracy, which he said proved to be far broader than he thought.
"The evidence showed there was no real, honest-to-God planning for an attack on Fort Dix," he said. "The defendants were never all in a room at one time with a map of the fort, plotting what they were going to do."
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