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Terror case to test informants' credibility

FBI defends use of cell infiltrators to build its case

By Josh Meyer
Los Angeles Times / October 20, 2008
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CHERRY HILL, N.J. - One is a bankrupt convicted felon who spewed hatred about the United States, helped an alleged terrorist cell get semiautomatic weapons, and drove the surveillance car as they cased military bases.

The other talked of killing someone back home in Albania and vowed to kill others or blow himself up in a crowd of people now that he's here in the United States.

But Mahmoud Omar and Besnik Bakalli aren't members of the so-called "Fort Dix Six" who go will on trial today for allegedly conspiring to gun down military personnel at the Army base in New Jersey in a jihad-inspired attack last year. They are informants who are instrumental to the government's case.

But the two men are expected to be put on the hot seat nearly as much as the defendants and their handlers from the FBI.

Omar, 39, is an Egyptian who fixed and sold used cars. He was paid as much as $150,000 - and possibly more - by federal authorities for infiltrating the group of young foreign-born Muslims in this prosperous Philadelphia suburb after authorities became suspicious of them in early 2006.

For 16 months, Omar talked tough, boasting of his exploits as an Egyptian military officer, a drug dealer, and petty criminal who sneaked into the United States through Mexico in the 1980s, according to wiretapped conversations and a brother of three of the defendants.

Bakalli, who is about 35, talked even tougher than Omar, saying continually that he was not afraid to die.

"Besnik was the only one talking about wanting to shoot people, to blow them up, and we kept saying, 'Why would you want to do that? It's forbidden in our religion,' " said Burim Duka, an ethnic Albanian Muslin whose three brothers are among the people on trial.

Duka, 17, says the informants fingered his brothers and two of his friends for participating in a terrorist plot that never existed.

The five main defendants, all foreign-born Muslim men in their 20s, were arrested in May 2007 and accused of plotting to sneak onto Fort Dix to attack soldiers. The Army base primarily trains reservists for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mohamad Shnewer, Serdar Tatar, and brothers Dritan, Eljvir, and Shain Duka are charged with attempted murder, conspiracy, and weapons offenses and could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted on all counts.

A sixth defendant pleaded guilty to gun-related charges.

The government's case does not rely solely on informants. It has hundreds of hours of tapes in which the defendants discuss attacking Fort Dix, other military bases, and civilian targets.

Legal analysts say the trial will test the government's use of "cold inserts," or informants who insinuate themselves into a group of terrorist suspects, usually for money or in exchange for making legal or immigration problems disappear.

It is a controversial tactic that has been used with increasing frequency and some success since Sept. 11, 2001. Critics say it has the potential for far more abuse than the traditional tactic of "flipping" someone who is part of a conspiracy.

FBI and Justice Department officials defended the use of the two informants, saying people with criminal records and checkered pasts are often the only ones who can infiltrate a suspected terrorist cell without raising suspicion. They also said the FBI has in place a recently improved and extensive system of safeguards for monitoring them.

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