The Fort Dix Conspiracy

Fort Dix Six
From left, Serdar Tatar and Dritan, Eljivir and Shain Duka are accused of being terrorists.
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Behind the Fort Dix Six

TIME National Security reporter Amanda Ripley looks at a case of alleged homegrown terrorism, and how the government reacts

Introducing the informant
After 9/11, it was painfully clear that the FBI lacked human intelligence. As agents began to develop Muslim informants, or "assets," as they are called, things changed. The number of informants used in terrorism investigations has "increased exponentially," says Art Cummings, deputy assistant director of counterterrorism at the FBI. That is a big improvement. But informants are not what most people think they are. They are not undercover FBI agents; they are untrained civilians who need something — badly. Usually, they need money or a way to reduce their prison sentences or avoid deportation. Many have criminal records, and the Justice Department's Inspector General reported in 2005 that 10% of a sampling of informants had committed new, unauthorized crimes while working for the FBI.

"Almost the first thing taught to agents is 'Never trust an informant,'" says Dennis G. Fitzgerald, a former agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the author of a 2007 book, Informants and Undercover Investigations: A Practical Guide to Law, Policy and Practice. But out of necessity, informants are now foot soldiers in the government's fight against terrorism. The FBI has nowhere near enough agents who can pass as young Muslim extremists. "They need informants. Two FBI agents from Duluth are not going to make it," says Jenkins of Rand. So agents delegate the job to laypeople with strong and sometimes perverse incentives. "The only way to find out what's going on inside rather closed or private communities is to get people in there to infiltrate them," U.S. Attorney Christie tells TIME. "Would I rather have a trained law-enforcement officer as a witness? Yes. That's not always possible."

Mahmoud Omar was hired by the FBI to ingratiate himself with the men from the Circuit City video, and he did his job persistently if not always gracefully. In early 2006, Omar first visited a grocery store in southern New Jersey owned by Ibrahim Shnewer. The Shnewer family had immigrated to the U.S. from Jordan. Like Omar, they were Muslim. They were polite to Omar, who seemed needy for companionship and sometimes for money, according to members of the Shnewer and Duka families. He was a car dealer and a mechanic in his late 30s, and he claimed to have been a member of the Egyptian military. (Efforts to reach Omar, whose home number has been disconnected, were not successful.)

Omar went back to the Shnewer shop again and again. He made small talk with everyone, but especially with Mohamed, 22, a U.S. citizen and the Shnewers' only son. "Mohamed was like a baby," his mother Faten Shnewer says. He had dropped out of community college, and he lived at home. He liked to watch the Nickelodeon show Drake & Josh; play Madden, the football video game; and hang out with his five sisters. He worked long hours, often all night, driving a taxi owned by his father and talking by cell phone to his mother and his friends, the Duka brothers.

Soon Mohamed and Omar were playing billiards together and talking about politics, sports and religion. "He acted like a young guy, like he was cool and everything," says Hnan Shnewer, 16, who was Mohamed's sister and the wife of Eljvir. Through Mohamed, Omar met the Duka brothers and Serdar Tatar, another friend, who would be charged in the case.

At the time, Omar was on probation. In 2001, he had been charged with opening bank accounts, depositing bogus checks and then trying to draw down the account, according to the indictment. He had pleaded guilty to three counts of bank fraud and was sentenced to six months in prison and five years' probation and ordered to pay Patriot Bank $9,550 in restitution. Soon afterward, the Federal Government began removal proceedings against Omar, citing his conviction. He successfully fought the attempt. Then, in October 2004, Omar was arrested again, this time for fighting with a neighbor. After both men declined to testify, the charges were reduced to disorderly conduct.

In April 2006, just after Omar began working with the FBI on the Fort Dix case, the government tried to deport him yet again, according to the Department of Justice. Immigration officials declined to reveal any details about what led to that proceeding. But the record reflects that the case was closed in September 2006, which happened to be just after Omar recorded Shnewer saying some very provocative things about Fort Dix. The prosecutor has not yet confirmed Omar's name, let alone whether he received any kind of deal in exchange for his help. But it is clear that he was paid for his efforts — and that he needed the money. Omar filed for bankruptcy in New Jersey in 2002, at which point he owed about $38,000 to more than two dozen creditors. The prosecutor has not yet revealed how much Omar was paid, but it is probably well above $10,000.

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