reporter at The Intercept.
fellow at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice and former FBI agent specializing in domestic counterterrorism.
As Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie prepares to enter the presidential race, we look at a case often cited as one of his crowning achievements during his time as U.S. attorney: the case of the Fort Dix Five. In 2008, five men from suburban New Jersey were convicted of conspiring to kill American soldiers at the Fort Dix Army base. As U.S. attorney, Christie was responsible for prosecuting the case. A new article in The Intercept suggests three of the convicts, the Duka brothers, were entrapped by government agents and not predisposed to commit a terrorist crime. We are joined by Intercept reporter Murtaza Hussain, whose latest piece is "Christie’s Conspiracy: The Real Story Behind the Fort Dix Five Terror Plot."
NERMEEN SHAIKH: As Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie prepares to enter the presidential race, we look at a case often cited as one of his crowning achievements during his time as U.S. attorney: the case of the Fort Dix Five. In 2008, five men from suburban New Jersey were convicted of conspiring to kill American soldiers at the Fort Dix Army base. As U.S. attorney, Christie was responsible for prosecuting the case.
The Intercept has just published a piece re-examining the case. It’s titled "Christie’s Conspiracy: The Real Story Behind the Fort Dix Five Terror Plot." The Intercept has also just released a short accompanying video that includes a lengthy interview with Burim Duka. Three of his brothers were arrested in the plot and remain locked up. The video begins with then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie speaking in 2007 from the steps of the federal courthouse in Camden, New Jersey.
CHRIS CHRISTIE: The philosophy that supports and encourages jihad around the world against Americans came to live here in New Jersey and threaten the lives of our citizens through these defendants. Fortunately, law enforcement in New Jersey was here to stop them.
BURIM DUKA: My oldest brother is Dritan Duka. The second oldest is Shain Duka. The third oldest is Eljvir. My three brothers and two other defendants got arrested for conspiracy to attack a military base here in New Jersey, the Fort Dix military base. We used to go out in the wintertime, when—because we owned a roofing company, we couldn’t work wintertime, when it was snowing, so we would go on a vacation with just us guys.
UNIDENTIFIED: There he is! He’s coming!
UNIDENTIFIED: Here comes Shain, right there! Look at him! Yo, this is nice! Oh, it’s a nice view.
BURIM DUKA: We were recording, of course, so that everybody could have a little clip of what we did when we were in the Poconos.
UNIDENTIFIED: I’ll record. Want me to record? Allahu Akbar.
BURIM DUKA: And then, me and my brother, Suleiman, we went to Circuit City to transfer the cassette that we had into a DVD for each person that went to the Poconos with us, so they could have one.
UNIDENTIFIED: We’re at the range for the second time, going to try to shoot some more. This is what we did yesterday.
UNIDENTIFIED: Hey, throw something up for me. Throw a snowball up for me.
UNIDENTIFIED: Allahu Akbar.
UNIDENTIFIED: Man, this thing is fantastic!
BURIM DUKA: The Circuit City person turned in the video to the police and said, "These people are shouting out, 'Allahu Akbar!'"—which means "God is great"—"while shooting weapons." Then the FBI started investigating us from that day on. They got two informants involved—Mahmoud Omar, an Egyptian guy, and Besnik Bakalli, who was an Albanian informant. He was mainly here for us Duka brothers. Bakalli, because we stood with him more, he would always try to bring up topics about like politics, about what was going on in the news, was always trying to bring up jihad, why are we not doing nothing, how come we’re not overseas. Older people and women are doing stuff, and we’re not. He would always try to get on our bad side, but we always played it cool.
BESNIK BAKALLI: You learn the Qur’an. You’re going by Qur’an. And you’re going to—you’re not fighting for Muslims. You’re still questioning yourself. Why you’re not fighting for Muslims?
ELJVIR DUKA: Oh, Besnik.
TONY DUKA: Because we have nothing to do with that.
UNIDENTIFIED: We don’t—well, we don’t have the balls to go and die.
BESNIK BAKALLI: Don’t question yourself.
SHAIN DUKA: Oh, Besnik!
BESNIK BAKALLI: That’s what I’m saying.
SHAIN DUKA: I will tell you straight up: We don’t have the balls to do that.
BESNIK BAKALLI: No, don’t say that, because when our elders have gone to fight, how can we just sit at watch?
SHAIN DUKA: We don’t have the balls. We’re not gonna do nothing.
UNIDENTIFIED: We’re talking—we’re talking about certain death. You put bombs on your body, and you hit ’em up.
SHAIN DUKA: No, that I wouldn’t do. That I wouldn’t do. I’d rather go out—
UNIDENTIFIED: It’s up—it’s up to you.
SHAIN DUKA: I cannot do that.
BESNIK BAKALLI: Yo, if you guarantee me I go to heaven, I do it. Would you guarantee me that?
SHAIN DUKA: No.
BURIM DUKA: The informant, Omar, hung out with our friend, Shnewer. Shnewer wasn’t like my brothers. He said all types of crazy things. And together, the informant and Shnewer came up with a plot to attack Fort Dix. The informant needed Shnewer to say that my brothers were in on the plot. But once the government seen that my brothers weren’t in and knew nothing about it, they created an illegal gun deal. Mahmoud Omar knew that my brothers were into guns. He spent a lot of time with us. He set up the deal for my brothers to buy some weapons, and the weapons were provided by the FBI.
TONY DUKA: This is an M-15.
MAHMOUD OMAR: What is the difference between 16 and 15?
TONY DUKA: Sixteen is more powerful.
MAHMOUD OMAR: Sixteen is more power?
TONY DUKA: Sixteen is what the military uses. What’s that?
SHAIN DUKA: It’s an ambulance.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from a new video The Intercept, directed by Razan Ghalayini, on the Fort Dix Five. The video goes on to include a confession from one of the informants, Mahmoud Omar, who says the Duka brothers were innocent of any crime.
MAHMOUD OMAR: I don’t know nothing about those guys. And I said that in court. Those Dukas, they didn’t do nothing, and I never heard nothing from them. They are good and kind people.
AMY GOODMAN: [We’re joined] right now by Murtaza Hussain, a reporter at The Intercept. His latest piece is "Christie’s Conspiracy: The Real Story Behind the Fort Dix Five Terror Plot." Still with us is former FBI agent Mike German.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Murtaza. Talk about this case and what now-governor, then-U.S. attorney, Chris Christie had to do with it and who still remains in jail.
MURTAZA HUSSAIN: So, in 2007, this represented one of the most high-profile terrorism investigations in the post-9/11 era. At the time, it was reported that a group of men were planning to attack the Fort Dix military base, Albanian immigrants to the U.S. And it was trumpeted as a major uncovering of a major plot against the U.S. Chris Christie was then U.S. attorney at the time, and he was integrally responsible for prosecuting this case and generating the charges against these men.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what happened next.
MURTAZA HUSSAIN: So, after the Duka family went on a family vacation to the Poconos, they dropped off a video of their trip to a local Circuit City. In the video, they had done horseback riding, skiing, and they had gone to a shooting range. And they peppered their phrases with Arabic phrases, as people tend to do who are of Muslim background. The Circuit City people got alarmed by this. They reported to police. The police forwarded the tape to the FBI, and the FBI proceeded to introduce two informants into the lives of the Duka brothers.
These informants befriended them over the course of about 18 months. They recorded them. They tried to goad them into saying things. They tried to get them to commit a criminal act. And they were never successful. There was another man—not one of the Duka brothers—who went along with the informants’ plot separately, but the Dukas themselves never even knew about a Fort Dix plot. And then, in 2007, when they were arrested, they were charged with this plot to attack the base, and they ended up being convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. And they’re all still serving life today.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mike German, could you talk about the increasing use of FBI informants following 9/11 and what the effects of that were and to what extent that policy still continues today?
MIKE GERMAN: Sure. So, after 9/11, terrorism became the FBI—actually, preventing terrorism became the FBI’s number one mandate, so they transferred a lot of resources and agents to work in counterterrorism. They expanded the Joint Terrorism Task Forces and expanded the informants dedicated to counterterrorism work. And this technique—informants are not new. Law enforcement has—as long as there’s been law enforcement, there have been informants. And I did undercover work often with informants. But what has changed is this methodology.
Number one, typically, you would not use an informant who had a more serious criminal record than the subject of the investigation. That just didn’t make any sense that you would put somebody who’s a really bad person to just ensnare somebody else, when you don’t have significant evidence that that person is engaged in violent crime. So, it’s who’s being used to target who, and then the use of these techniques where the inducement and the coercion is so significant that it would not have survived muster. I mean, before 9/11, if I had asked the FBI to open an undercover terrorism investigation and told them that the person was not associated with any real terrorist group and had no weapons of their own and had no plot of their own, that that was all part of the operation, they would have probably sent me to psych counseling.
AMY GOODMAN: Murtaza?
MURTAZA HUSSAIN: And that was exactly the case in the Fort Dix case. There was no terrorist group. There was no plot to speak of. And there were no weapons, until the informant was introduced in the lives of these men.
AMY GOODMAN: And Chris Christie, specifically, the man who might well run for president of the United States?
MURTAZA HUSSAIN: Chris Christie was the U.S. attorney at the time of this case, and he was responsible for prosecuting the case. And in that clip you just saw, he gave this very incendiary press conference where he trumpeted these arrests in the immediate aftermath. For Christie, now governor, this case was huge to his career. He still discusses it to this day. He cites it as an example of defeating terrorism on his watch, when, in reality, the facts of the case are very troubling. It was a very dubious investigation and a very aggressive and malicious prosecution, which resulted in sending a number of men who may well have been completely innocent to jail for the rest of their lives.
AMY GOODMAN: What did Chris Christie know?
MURTAZA HUSSAIN: Chris Christie, well, we don’t know what he knew at the beginning of this case, but as the trial started to develop, it became very clear that there was not—there was a very glaring absence of evidence against the Duka brothers in this case. And this was even acknowledged at trial by the judge. During the sentencing hearing, when he delivered the sentences, he noted the lack of direct evidence and said that it did not seem to bother him nor the jury. So this is just indicative of the way, the callous—
AMY GOODMAN: So is it being appealed?
MURTAZA HUSSAIN: The brothers have launched a series of appeals, which have been denied.
AMY GOODMAN: Where are they imprisoned?
MURTAZA HUSSAIN: They are—two of the brothers are in ADX supermax. They’ve been in solitary for a number of years.
AMY GOODMAN: In?
MURTAZA HUSSAIN: In Colorado, Florence, Colorado, one of the most harsh and brutal prisons in the country, in solitary confinement 23 hours a day. They have not seen their children, nor touched them, since this happened. And their lives have been destroyed. And for what purpose?
AMY GOODMAN: Well—
MIKE GERMAN: And I think one of the things it shows is how the FBI has this concept of terrorist radicalization, that if you have these ideas, you are on a path to terrorism, so therefore it justifies using these extraordinary measures to pull you along the line, even though empirical studies do not support that theory of radicalization that the FBI holds to.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, and we will certainly link to your piece. Murtaza Hussain is a reporter at The Intercept. His latest piece, "Christie’s Conspiracy: The Real Story Behind the Fort Dix Five Terror Plot." And thanks again to Mike German, former special undercover agent for the FBI, now at the Brennan Center. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.