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Opening Statements To Start In Fort Dix Plot

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here in the United States five men go on trial today. They're all Muslims. They're all in their 20s. And they all lived in the Philadelphia area at the time that the U.S. government said they were involved in plot last year. The U.S. said it broke up a terrorist plot to attack soldiers at Fort Dix in New Jersey. And prosecutors say the men were close to carrying out that attack. Defense attorneys contend the government's case is thin, and we have more this morning from Joel Rose.

JOEL ROSE: Mimosa Drive is a quiet street in suburban Cherry Hill, New Jersey, just outside Philadelphia. Steve Squire(ph) has lived on Mimosa Drive for 16 years. And he says from the most part, the Duka family fit right in.

Mr. STEVE SQUIRE (Resident, Cherry Hill, New Jersey): They were roofers. They did the roof across the street. They're - they did a couple of houses along this block. I think they even did the fire department around the corner.

ROSE: The Dukas are ethnic Albanians from former Yugoslavia. They came to the U.S. illegally in the 1990s, and eventually settled in Cherry Hill. The oldest boys work for their father's roofing company. Squire says the Dukas seem like run-of-the-mill neighbors who mostly kept to themselves.

Mr. SQUIRE: Certainly didn't hear any explosions going off or anything like that. I didn't see any war games being played on my street.

ROSE: The government paints a very different picture of the Dukas. Prosecutors say brothers Dritan, Eljvir and Shain were part of a conspiracy to attack U.S. soldiers at Fort Dix. Here's U.S. Attorney Chris Christie announcing the charges at a press conference in May of last year.

Mr. CHRIS CHRISTIE (U.S. Attorney): The philosophy that supports and encourages jihad around the world against Americans came to live here in New Jersey and threatened the lives of our citizens through these defendants.

ROSE: Prosecutors say two of the Duka brothers were arrested while trying to purchase machine guns. Government says the Dukas and two other men intended to use the weapons in an attack on Fort Dix. Edward Turzanski, an expert on counter-terrorism at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, says whether the plot would have worked is not the point.

Mr. EDWARD TURZANSKI (Counter-Terrorism Expert, Foreign Policy Research Institute): Just because they maybe the keystone cops of terrorism, doesn't mean that they weren't trying to kill people. They had the intent. They had the means. They had the plan, and we preempted that plan.

ROSE: But when it comes to preemptive prosecution, the government's track record has been mixed. And the so-called 4 Dix 5 all insist they are innocent. The case began two years ago, when the Duka brothers went to Circuit City to get an 8mm video from their vacation convert it to DVD. Among other things, the video show young men firing weapons and shouting jihad and other Arabic words. The government contends it was a quote "militia-like training exercise." The Defense Attorney Michael Riley who represents Shain Duka says it's nothing of the kind.

Mr. MICHAEL RILEY (Defense Attorney): That at some points they're shooting their weapons at snow balls and they're acting as if they're movie-style gangsters. It's a lot of a horse play and has no role or connection or relevance to any form of military training.

ROSE: The clerk at Circuit City showed the tape to police. That led to the FBI sending a confidential informant to infiltrate the group. The informant recorded hundreds of hours of conversations with the defendants, recordings that are now crucial to the government's case. At one point, defendant Mohamed Shnewer says on tape quote "my intent is to hit a heavy concentration of soldiers."

Professor EDWARD OHLBAUM (Law, Temple University): The question is going to be not whether the defendants said these things, but what the defendants meant by saying these things. Or why did the defendant say them?

ROSE: Temple University Law Professor Edward Ohlbaum says the defense will likely focus on the credibility of the government's informant and on the context of the recordings.

Mr. OHLBAUM: Were they puffing, were they exaggerating? Were they trying, you know, show how cool they were? Or actually, were they expressing their intention to do all the kind of ugly things that the government says they were planning to do.

ROSE: Ultimately, that's what the jury will have to decide. The government's informant is expected to testify. Some of the defendants may also take the stand. The trial could last until Christmas. From NPR News, I am Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

INSKEEP: It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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