Opening Statements Start in Fort Dix Terror Case

Five men are accused of plotting to kill soldiers

Government prosecutors spent an hour Monday telling jurors that five men were inspired by al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden when they plotted to attack a New Jersey military base.


Lawyers for the men followed by spending four hours telling jurors that the plot was between just one of the suspects and a government informant who lead him and tried to get the others to join.


"The only conspiracy that actually existed was a conspiracy of confusion and conflicting information," defense lawyer Troy Archie told the jury of eight women and four men.


Though no attack of Fort Dix was carried out, the government has presented the case as one of the most frightening examples of homegrown terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks.


"Their motive was to defend Islam. Their inspiration was al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. Their intent was to kill members of the United States armed services," Deputy U.S. Attorney William Fitzpatrick told the jury of eight women and four men.


The government presented the men, who sat behind tables with covers to hide their leg shackles from jurors, as dangerous and promised to play for jurors over the course of the trial some 90 recordings that would lay out just how far along they were in planning and training for an attack, which they said was averted when the men were arrested in May 2007.


The defense lawyers called the government's use of recordings a "cut and paste" effort and said they would actually show an informant trying to build a conspiracy.


The men, all foreign-born Muslims in their 20s -- are charged with conspiring to murder military personnel, attempted murder and weapons offenses. They could face life in prison if they're convicted during the trial, which is expected to last into December.


Authorities said that in 2006 and 2007, the men turned paintball games into terrorist training sessions and met to discuss a plot to sneak onto the Army's Fort Dix base and kill soldiers.


Fitzpatrick told jurors they would see jihadist videos that the defendants watched and would learn many details of the alleged plot, including assertions by the government that one the men went on reconnaissance missions at Fort Dix and other military installations and that all of them trained for an attack during retreats in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania in 2006 and 2007.


The government also says they had at least two maps of the military installation, which is used primarily to train reservists for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Fitzpatrick said that one defendant, Mohamad Shnewer, told an informant that he believed Americans are arrogant and believe "no one can hit us." "We will change this, God willing," he allegedly said.


Lawyers for two of the men accused the government of taking things out of context.


Michael Huff, a lawyer for Dritan "Tony" Duka, said the government was stretching innocent games of paintball and vacations in the Pococos that involved stops at shooting ranges to look like terrorism training.


"I guess the government can say that pingpong helps your hand-eye coordination" for an attack, he said. "That's what they're doing in this case. They're taking these innocent things and turning them into something they're not."


The lawyers also said that everyone involved knew that any of Shnewer's big talk was not going to turn into action. In fact, defense lawyer Rocco Cipparone told jurors Cipparone was often the butt of jokes among his friends. The lawyers said Shnewer seemed to fall under the sway of informant Mahmoud Omar; Cipparone argued that he never planned to follow through with any violence, though.


The defense lawyers also began attacking the credibility of two paid FBI informants at the heart of the case.


Both informants had criminal pasts, defense attorneys said, and had their own interests to make it look like there was a plot. Omar will have been paid $238,000 by the end of this year for his help in the case, they said; the other paid informant, Besnik Bakalli, was motivated by the hope of getting legal residency status in the United States.


In his opening arguments, Fitzpatrick tried to hedge against such criticism, explaining that to infiltrate the group, the government needed to find people who would seem credible to its members.


The first witnesses to be called Tuesday include top brass from Fort Dix and other military installations that the government said were considered as targets: Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, a U.S. Coast Guard center in Philadelphia and New Jersey's Lakehurt Naval Air Station and Fort Monmouth.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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