With the arrest of six men in New Jersey today, the FBI said it had foiled a frightening terror plot intended to inflict mass casualties at a major U.S. Army base. But nobody is breathing easy. The case is just the latest example of how homegrown Islamic militants are indoctrinating themselves in violent jihad theology by watching videos and surfing the Web—without any apparent direction from Al Qaeda or other organized terror groups.
There is no evidence that any of the six men implicated so far in the New Jersey plot had any contact with Al Qaeda or any other terrorists overseas. (The same is true of several—but not all—recent terror plots in Europe.) But that doesn't mean their alleged conspiracy was any less alarming. According to a detailed FBI affidavit, the suspects—four men from the former Yugoslavia, a Turkish native and one U.S. citizen who was born in Jordan—collected handguns, shot guns and semiautomatic assault rifles, engaged in firearms training in the Pocono Mountains, undertook surveillance of several U.S. military facilities and openly talked among themselves about how to carry off multiple spectacular attacks against U.S. military personnel.
"He had only one mind, how to kill American soldiers," one of the plotters is quoted as saying about a fellow co-conspirator, in a conversation secretly recorded by the FBI on March 10, 2007.
The apparent leader of the group, Philadelphia taxi driver Mohammed Shnewer, is quoted in the affidavit as telling a confidential FBI informant that he envisioned using "six or seven jihadists" armed with rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, to kill at least 100 soldiers at Fort Dix. Apparently motivated by his fury at the U.S. military, Shnewer also allegedly talked about timing another attack on a nearby U.S. naval base in Philadelphia during a peak period just before the annual Army-Navy football game. (The root cause of Shnewer's hatred of American armed forces has not yet been made clear.)
"You know where the stadiums are in Philadelphia?" Shnewer is quoted as telling a confidential FBI informant on March 16, 2007, according to the affidavit. "There is the Navy base and every year they have the Army-Navy ball game and they come and stay one or two weeks … the Navy base will then be full of people … You see this is an opportunity, and the beauty of this location, specifically, if you have the proper weaponry, is that you can hit it from where, do you know? From New Jersey."
There is no evidence that the suspects ever acquired the RPGs that Shnewer wanted to use. Nor does it appear that any of the plotting ever got much beyond the talking stage. But the fact that such a plot could spring up among U.S. residents—without any overseas guidance or instigation—may be the most troubling aspects of the case, according to some U.S. security officials and analysts.
"What is most worrisome is that it is homegrown, disaffected young Muslims who take actions and planning on their own rather than taking direction from Al Qaeda," said Kenneth Katzman, a counterterrorism analyst with the Congressional Research Service. "This is what we have been expecting for some time."
While the suspects' alleged terror plotting may not have been directed from abroad, investigators believe they were inspired by Al Qaeda recruitment videos and other martyrdom tapes downloaded from the Internet—an indication that Osama bin Laden's message is reaching U.S. soil, even if his operatives are not.
The FBI affidavit, attached as an exhibit to an FBI complaint seeking court authority to arrest the six suspects, says that the bureau first got wind of the defendants early last year as a result of what sounds like a tactical indiscretion. According to the FBI document, in late January 2006, someone at an unidentified retail store got in touch with the bureau about a video that a customer had brought in to be transferred to a DVD. The store representative told the FBI the DVD depicted activity which appeared "disturbing."
Upon screening the DVD, the FBI affidavit says, investigators found that it showed 10 young men, all in their early 20s, "shooting assault weapons at a firing range in a militia-like style while calling for jihad and shouting in Arabic 'Allah Akbar' ('God is Great')." After viewing the video, the FBI affidavit says, the bureau and a joint terrorism task force "immediately" opened an investigation into the people depicted in the DVD.
While the FBI affidavit says that the bureau identified all 10 men who appear on the DVD, the document only names six of them—the six defendants arrested in the case. Authorities said that three of the Yugoslav natives implicated in the plot were brothers and were in the United States illegally. The other three accused plotters—Shnewer, another Yugoslav and a Turk—were all legal U.S. residents (Shnewer holds U.S. citizenship). Five of those arrested were charged with plotting to kill soldiers at Fort Dix, while the sixth, a legal U.S. immigrant from Yugoslavia, was charged only with aiding and abetting other defendants to possess firearms illegally. Law-enforcement officials said the defendants were between 22 and 29 years old. (The six have yet to enter a plea.)
In March of last year, several weeks after receiving the initial tip-off from the video-copying store, the FBI managed to infiltrate the group of suspects with an informant, according to the affidavit. The document says that the "cooperating witness" ingratiated himself with Shnewer and secretly started to record him. Shnewer then gave the confidential informant his laptop computer and told him to review DVD files on his hard drive. One file, which Shnewer had labeled "19," turned out to be the last will and testament of two of the September 11 hijackers. The other DVD file contained images of Osama bin Laden exhorting followers to join the jihadist movement.
The men focused on Fort Dix in central New Jersey, in part, because one of the alleged plotters, Serdar Tatar, knew the layout. He used to work for a nearby pizzeria. "Serdar, he used to deliver there," Shnewer tells the confidential informant, according to the affidavit. He then added that Serdar "knows it like the palm of his hand."
In August 2006, Shnewer made a surveillance trip to the base with the confidential informant and further confided his plans. "My intent is to hit a heavy concentration of soldiers," he is quoted as saying. The two apparently got access to the base, according to the affidavit, which states that while driving by one specific area, Shnewer told the informant: "This is exactly what we are looking for. You hit 4, 5, or 6 Humvees and light the whole place [up] and then retreat completely without any losses."
The affidavit also describes a scene in which the informant, while visiting a rental house the group was using during training sessions in the Poconos, sees Shnewer play them videos on his laptop computer showing U.S. military vehicles being destroyed in attacks. When one member of the group points out a U.S. Marine's arm had been blown off, "laughter erupted from the group," according to the FBI affidavit.
Although the group had acquired some handguns, rifles and ammunition, they began this March to talk about purchasing heavier weaponry, including fully automatic AK-47s. The FBI informant appears to have told members of the group that he had a source who could provide such weapons—and even gave one alleged plotter a list of what could be obtained, including an RPG launcher. During one meeting in April, the accused plotter, Dritan Duka, is quoted as telling the informant: "There was some stuff on the list that was heavy s--t—the RPG." He then adds, "I want all of the AK's, all the M-16s ... and all the handguns." The discussion about the purchase of the weapons is apparently what prompted the FBI to end the 16-month investigation and arrest the suspects.
In the aftermath of 9/11, as the U.S. and its allies launched a worldwide campaign against the bin Laden terror network and its known affiliates and sympathizers, counterterror officials have been increasingly worried that one of the unintended results of the crackdown would be to fragment the jihadi movement, drive its supporters underground and make it harder for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to keep track of them, or even identify them.
The post-9/11 jihadists feared most by security and intelligence officials are "lone-wolf" terrorists—small, self-indoctrinating cells whose members may never have any contact with known terror groups and may be entirely unknown to law enforcement or spy agencies. Investigations in Britain, Bosnia, Canada and the U.S. over the last several years have provided evidence that members of such cells have been able to work themselves into violent frames of mind, and can sometimes equip themselves with deadly homemade weapons, by visiting a proliferating library of jihadi sites on the Internet. Fortunately, in the New Jersey case, the defendants' grandiose and deadly ambitions were thwarted when the arms dealer they were hoping to get their supplies from turned out to be part of a well-orchestrated FBI sting.