It all began with dropping off a video at a branch of Circuit City. A group of Muslim friends living in and around the suburban New Jersey town of Cherry Hill had just come back from a trip to the nearby Poconos Mountains in Pennsylvania.
They had gone skiing, played paintball, ridden horses and fired guns at a public shooting range, all of which they had filmed. The group included the four Duka brothers, Dritan, Shain, Eljvir and Burim, children of Albanian illegal immigrants, but who had grown up in America. The Duka men, devout Muslims with bushy beards, wanted to make copies of the film on DVDs to give others on the trip.
Unknown to them, the young Circuit City clerk they dealt with in January 2006 was disturbed by the part of their holiday video showing the Dukas firing weapons, especially when he heard cries of “Allahu Akbar” and “Jihad”. He went to the police.
That single action triggered a massive FBI surveillance operation that lasted more than a year and saw two FBI informants sent to befriend the men on the tape. It ended with dramatic arrests and claims of a terrorist plot to attack the nearby Fort Dix army base.
Five men – including Dritan, Shain and Eljvir Duka – ended up with hefty jail sentences and are now known as the Fort Dix Five. Sitting in the Cherry Hill home he shares with his parents, Burim Duka thinks of the Poconos, the trip to Circuit City and where it all led.
“We were shooting at a public shooting range. We were saying ‘Allahu Akbar’ in front of people on the range. It was not a big deal,” he told the Guardian. “We were just having fun. All the guys. If you were a real terrorist making a video, you would not go and take it to Circuit City.”
That argument held little water with FBI investigators, prosecutors who painted a picture of a dangerous anti-American terror cell, jurors who returned a guilty verdict or the judge who gave each Duka brother a life sentence. To them, the FBI had exposed a dangerous group of men, using brave FBI informants who had neutralised a terrorist threat.
They had video of one of the Five – a local cab driver called Mohammed Shnewer – carrying out a surveillance operation on Fort Dix. Another, Serdar Tatar, had a detailed map of the base.
Police swooped after the Dukas illegally bought powerful guns in a deal arranged by an informant who had also offered to get them RPGs. The FBI also had evidence the Fort Dix Five had been watching bloody Jihadi videos and surfing the web for militant Islamic websites. They had transcripts of conversations in which the suspects lambasted America’s policy towards Muslims and praised radicals, like now dead Yemeni-American cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, whose lectures they had listened to.
It seems a powerful case. But a closer examination of the evidence and the way in which the FBI carried out the investigation – especially by paying large sums of money to two informants with criminal pasts – casts serious doubts about the Fort Dix Five’s convictions, especially that of the Dukas. It raises the prospect that, had the FBI not been alerted to the holiday video, the Dukas, far from being a terrorist threat, would actually still be running their family roofing business, raising children and living a suburban New Jersey life.
As their mother, Zurata Duka, told the Guardian: “If there was something they did, all right, punish them, I say. But these are innocent kids.”
The FBI probe began with the deployment of an informant called Mahmoud Omar who befriended Mohammed Shnewer. Omar began to hang out at the shop the Shnewer family owned, became close to the young man, playing pool and talking politics and religion.
Omar’s own past was not exactly trouble-free. Omar, who was born in Egypt, had money troubles, had been found guilty of bank fraud and was facing possible deportation.
However, after recording Shnewer making provocative statements about Fort Dix, deportation proceedings against Omar were suddenly dropped. Debts was also paid off. Certainly Shnewer – whom Burim describes as a “fantasist” with a “child’s mind” – made statements that implicated himself. He was recorded by Omar as saying “my intent is to hit a concentration of soldiers” and “If you want to do anything here, there is Fort Dix … I assure you that you can hit an American base very easily.”
Shnewer’s use of the word “you” rather than “I” or “we” could imply it was Omar who was coming up with the momentum for any plot. But the FBI, not content with singling out Shnewer alone, moved the focus of its operation on to the Dukas.
To confidently secure a conspiracy case you need more people involved than just an informant and a target. So a second informant was deployed: an Albanian man called Besnik Bakalli.
Bakalli’s past made Omar look like an angel. Bakalli was found by the FBI in jail. He has confessed to shooting someone in Albania who had threatened his sister, though the man survived. Yet by working as an informant trying to pin down the Dukas as terrorists, Bakalli would make $150,000. Omar raked in $240,000.
Both Omar and Bakalli worked their targets tirelessly, making endless audio recordings. They accompanied the men on a second holiday trip to the Poconos in 2007, where again they shot weapons at a public range.
Burim described how Omar would approach the Duka brothers and talk about how they were “training”.
“We were like: ‘Training? No, we are on vacation’,” Burim said. Burim also said they had asked a friend, a Philadelphia policeman, to come on that 2007 holiday but he had been unable to make it.
“What kind of terrorists would offer a policeman to come?” Burim said.
Such things are not the only parts of the prosecution case that do not seem to add up. None of the Dukas were ever recorded mentioning Fort Dix. They also claim almost all of the jihadi videos used by the prosecution were downloaded at the instigation of Omar.
When Omar drew up a list of weapons he said he could obtain, it was he who added the RPGs. The Dukas agreed only to buy guns, which Burim said they wanted cheaply so they could use them on further Poconos trips.
Key parts of the prosecution case were also unrecorded. For example, Omar failed to record the vital chats where the gun deal was set up, claiming the equipment had not worked. Nor is the obtaining of a map of Fort Dix exactly a smoking gun. The map, which Serdar could get because his father ran a pizza delivery firm which served the army base, was a simple road map and less detailed than others easily available on the internet.
Indeed, Serdar actually went to the police in Philadelphia to report his concerns that someone – likely either Omar or Shnewer – was pressuring him to get a Fort Dix map, and that he thought it might be linked to terrorism. It seems unlikely that a real terrorist would report his own plot.
Nor is the so-called “reconnaissance” of Fort Dix and other bases quite as condemning as it first seems. Only Shnewer went on the trips, and video of one “mission” show he was sipping coffee in the passenger seat while Omar did the driving. All that appears to have happened was that Omar drove to the gates of Fort Dix and then turned around. Indeed, Shnewer repeatedly failed to do things that Omar asked him to, like return to Fort Dix or practise how to make bombs, and he ignored Omar’s taunts that he was not doing enough to further the scheme.
In court, Omar himself actually confessed that two of the Dukas brothers – Dritan and Shain – knew nothing of any Fort Dix plot. “[They] had nothing to do with this matter,” Omar said.
But now Dritan and Shain are in a Colorado “supermax” prison while Eljvir resides in a jail in Indiana. They are awaiting judgment on their appeal. A decision could be handed down at any moment, either freeing them or confirming that they might spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
In brief telephone conversations with his brothers Burim says they are in high spirits, laughing and joking like they did growing up together. “They are strong in faith and they know they are innocent,” Burim said.
The Duka family, however, has been devastated. The children of the jailed brothers now live with their grandparents and Burim. Their roofing business was almost ruined by the publicity around their trial. They sometimes faced insults in the streets and the kids were teased at school.
But, Burim says, there has been a shift in their Cherry Hill neighbours’ mood recently as more facts about the case have emerged. Last year he was watching one of his nephews play soccer for his school team when one of the other player’s fathers approached him and said he believed his brothers were innocent.
“That was good,” Burim said. “It is getting a little better. People are reading about it. There is a change in opinion.”