Fort Dix Terror Suspects' Lives Gave Few Clues About Alleged Plot
Wednesday, May 09, 2007
CHERRY HILL, N.J. To neighbors, they looked like anything but terrorists.
Each summer, the family two doors down from Michael Levine in this affluent suburb of Philadelphia would bring over baskets of vegetables they had grown in their backyard.
The three brothers owned a roofing business, and the women in the ethnic Albanian family wore head scarves. They kept farm animals in the backyard until others in the neighborhood of tidy two-story houses complained, Levine said.
Authorities say the brothers' unremarkable blue-collar lives belied the mayhem they allegedly planned to unleash with others in a plot to kill hundreds of soldiers at Fort Dix. They and three other foreign-born Muslims living in the area were arrested Monday night.
"You would not think that they would be capable of plotting something like this," Levine said of the brothers. "When I found out this morning, my heart stopped."
Also arrested were Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer, 22, of Cherry Hill; Serdar Tatar, 23, of Philadelphia; and Agron Abdullahu, 24, of Buena Vista Township. Shnewer and Tatar were charged in the alleged plot; Abdullahu was charged with aiding and abetting the Duka brothers' illegal possession of weapons.
The Duka brothers were born in the former Yugoslavia and residing illegally in the U.S. Shnewer, a native of Jordan; Tatar, a native of Turkey; and Abdullahu, who was born in the former Yugoslavia, are legal residents. Eljvir Duka called himself 'Elvis.'
Dritan and Shain Duka once owned a pizza shop in Turnersville, N.J., about 35 miles from Fort Dix. They sold it in June 2005 to Tony Giordano, who now operates it as Tony Soprano's Pizza, Giordano said. He said it was "a filthy rat trap" before he remodeled it.
"I had a brief encounter with" Dritan Duka, who goes by Tony, Giordano said. "They weren't the friendliest people, but then again, who would know something like that?"
According to Levine, there often were many people in the house, as many as 14 at a time, who came and went at different times, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. He thought nothing of it, believing that was their custom to have families live together.
"Until I know all the facts, I don't believe this. But then, the FBI doesn't kick in doors for nothing," he said.
Shain Duka is the only brother to ever get a driver's license, thought it expired in 2003, the newspaper reported. But each brother has tallied at least 19 points for moving violations.
Levine recalled seeing some of the Dukas shooting paintballs at trees in their front yard, an incident that seemed harmless at the time. Authorities say the group spoke of playing paintball as a training exercise for the attack.
Shnewer, a cab driver in Philadelphia who comes across in the criminal complaint as the group's dominant figure, lived just a few miles away.
Danielle Lee, a dispatcher for All City Taxi in Philadelphia, told The Philadelphia Inquirer she was shocked by Shnewer's arrest.
"He's such a nice man," she said. "We never had any complaints. He always kept to himself. No problems."
Neighbors in Cherry Hill say Shnewer had roosters that escaped and broken-down vehicles parked on the street. They said four or five families appeared to be living in the house and there were frequent visitors, but they did not mingle with their neighbors.
"They kept to themselves," said Don Bauer, 40, who lives across the street.
Abdullahu had worked recently at a ShopRite food market, according to authorities. He worked as a bakery supervisor after emigrating to the United States from Kosovo in 1999, said his cousin, Arsim Abdullahu, of New York City, in a telephone interview.
They last spoke by phone about seven months ago and have not seen each other for about five years, he said. Arsim Abdullahu said he could not remember anything that would suggest his cousin would get involved in an alleged terrorist plot.
"It's nothing I did and it's not like it's my problem," he said. "We have a law here. The law should take care of him, not me."
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Abdullahu was a former sniper in Kosovo who trained with the Egyptian military and is a legal U.S. resident.
At Abdullahu's house, family members were busy boarding up their windows and front door with plywood. "Go away," came a voice from behind the door when an Inquirer reporter knocked. "There's no side to tell."
According to a neighbor in northeast Philadelphia, Tatar didn't have much money and lived in a large apartment building with his pregnant wife, who was expecting twins. Authorities said his last known job was at a 7-Eleven convenience store in Philadelphia near Temple University.
A 7-Eleven official told The Philadelphia Inquirer that Tatar "got along with his coworkers. He was friendly towards the customers."
Neighbor Stacie Gandlina said she saw the federal agents who raided Tatar's apartment and tried to console his in-laws after his arrest Monday night.
"I said, 'If he is nice, they will let him go. If he is bad, why do you need a bad son-in-law? They have to check,'" Gandlina said Tuesday.
According to authorities, Tatar worked at Super Mario's Ristorante in Cookstown, at the northwestern edge of Fort Dix. Mario Tummillo, who lives near Tatar's father in Cookstown, said he knows Tatar and had worked with him at the pizza parlor.
Tummillo, 20, described Tatar as a religious man who "wasn't violent at all."
He recalled Tatar praying in the back of the restaurant and said Tatar often talked about religion, bringing it up in conversations about other subjects.
"He would start talking about how you should worship God," Tummillo said.
In the Poconos...
While staying in the Pocono Mountains to practice at a state firing range, some of suspects damaged their vacation rental with paintball pellets and drew the attention of security guards.
Cassy Herman told The Associated Press on Tuesday that suspect Eljvir Duka paid cash to rent her four-bedroom house in the Big Bass Lake development in February, and was very polite. But before the weekend was over, the community association's security department had called her to complain.
She phoned Duka at the rental house from her home in southern New Jersey.
"He said, 'Cassy, they're making too much of this, and it really wasn't anything,"' Herman said. She was later fined by the homeowner's association for the paintball shooting.
Duka, who lives near Herman's home in Blackwood, N.J., paid for damage to several lights that line the driveway of the rental property.
Federal authorities said at least five of the six men arrested Tuesday spent time at the house in the Poconos during a four-day period. Besides using paintball guns, they traveled about five miles to a shooting range on Pennsylvania state game land to practice with semiautomatic rifles, a shotgun and a 9 mm handgun, a federal affidavit said.
It was the same range where members had been videotaped more than a year earlier.
The state Game Commission maintains a handgun and rifle range on 26,000-acre Gameland No. 127 in Monroe County. Spokesman Jerry Feaser said commission ranges are generally not manned, except during peak use around rifle deer season.
Inside the Poconos rental house, about 90 miles north-northwest of the Philadelphia area and New Jersey's Fort Dix, Shnewer played laptop computer videos that showed U.S. military vehicles being attacked and destroyed, the federal affidavit said.
"Shain Duka pointed out that a United States Marine's arm had been blown off, at which point laughter erupted from the group," the affidavit said.
A few days after Duka rented the house, landlord Herman said she got a call from an FBI agent who wanted to rent the property for a weekend vacation.
"They said, 'Yeah, we're just trying to get away,"' she said. "They didn't stay long at all. They were there for maybe a couple hours, a half a day."
Big Bass Lake Community Association security director Rob O'Donnell said Tuesday "there were no firearms used on the property whatsoever," but declined further comment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.