From super-maximum security prison, Shain Duka, one of the Fort Dix Five, maintains he was set up in a terrorism plot by the FBI, and is now appealing to the supreme court for help.
In this courtroom sketch, judge Robert Kugler listens to closing arguments by attorney Michael Huff while defendants Shain Duka, from bottom left, Eljvir Duka, Dritan Duka, Mohamad Shnewer, and Serdar Tatar listen. Photograph: Shirley Shepard/AP
As a child Shain Duka often listened to his parents talk about living in fear of their government in communist Albania, before they moved to America and settled in New Jersey to raise their four sons. “I could not fathom or understand what were they talking about. We grew up having freedom. Where we could speak freely. We never lived in a time and place like that,” Duka told the Guardian.
But Duka believes he understands now. Duka is one of the Fort Dix Five, a group of Muslims convicted in a terrorist plot to attack a US army base. But the case is far from straightforward and has become emblematic of some of the extreme law enforcement methods deployed in the fight against terrorism in the decade after 9/11. Along with his brothers, Dritan and Eljvir, Shain Duka has become a symbol of so-called “entrapment” techniques used by the FBI to lure, monitor, trap and convict Muslim suspects in plots driven often wholly, or in part, by undercover agents and their informants.
Duka, speaking by phone from inside a high-security prison in Colorado, insists he and his two brothers are innocent and were set up by their own government. “Now I understand what my parents were saying. No, we don’t have freedom. When a group is targeted you don’t have freedoms,” he said in one of the few jailhouse media interviews to have been conducted with people convicted in such high profile “entrapment” cases.
Duka believes his family was simply caught up in a deliberate attempt to intimidate and silence the Muslim community. “This is all political. I am not going to say that every single case similar to mine is innocent. But the majority are innocent. This is a weapon that the government uses… to silence the Islamic community,” he said.
But to the FBI, and to the US justice system, the Duka brothers were a serious Islamic terrorist threat: pure and simple. The investigation that ended in their arrest in 2007 lasted more than a year and involved the use of confidential informants who befriended the Dukas, and a young cab driver called Mohammed Shnewer and Serdar Tatar, whose father ran a New Jersey pizza company that delivered to the Fort Dix army base.
Prosecutors used the informants’ evidence to paint a picture of a group of men who had been watching bloody jihadi videos, and been recorded lambasting American policy in Iraq and discussing radical Islam, including the lectures of slain Yemeni-American cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki. Shnewer, the FBI said, had conducted surveillance of Fort Dix and the Dukas were picked up after they illegally bought powerful guns in a deal arranged by an informant who had also offered to get them RPGs. All the Dukas got life in jail. Their appeal was turned down late last year.
But that simple version of the trial is barely to scratch the surface of the full story of the Dukas or cases like it. Many entrapment cases have emerged in the past decade in which US law enforcement has sought to lure suspects seen as potential terrorist threats into fake plots or encourage them to formulate their own attacks under close supervision. In the most controversial case, known as the Newburgh Four, an FBI informant offered hundreds of thousands of dollars, a new car and even a paid-for holiday, to lure black American Muslim targets into agreeing to help carry out a terror plot.
Along with the Newburgh Four, the Fort Dix Five have emerged as one of the most high profile cases. Civil liberties lawyers and Muslim community groups have expressed deep concern at the tactics that swept through a typical slice of suburban New Jersey and ended with five men in jail.
The first is the way the men came to the attention of the FBI. They were reported by a clerk in a local branch of Circuit City after dropping off a video to be copied onto multiple DVDs. The video featured the Dukas – who wear Islamic beards – shooting weapons and shouting “Allahu Akbar”. That was enough to unnerve the store’s clerk, who reported it to the police. The video, which had been shot on a recent vacation in the nearby Pocono Mountains, also included more typical scenes of the men playing paintball, skiing and riding horses.
The shooting had actually occurred at a public shooting range with rented weapons, and even the most fervent law enforcement official might have wondered why a nascent Islamic terror cell would deliver its propaganda to be developed at Circuit City. “We were perfectly innocent, you understand? We didn’t think nothing of it. This was supposed to be memorabilia [of the trip],” Duka said of the holiday video. But the incident sparked a sudden and massive FBI probe into the Dukas and their friends.
Naza Duka, the mother of the Fort Dix Five. Photograph: Mike Derer/AP
That investigation centred on the work of two FBI informants: Mahmoud Omar and Besnik Bakalli. Omar was the first to be sent into the field and he rapidly befriended Shnewer, eventually persuading him to go on trips to scout out Fort Dix. The Duka brothers never did so, nor was any evidence presented that showed them as aware of the base as a target. Bakalli, who was Albanian, worked more closely on befriending the Dukas, especially getting them to talk about their Muslim faith. to read the entire article at source