Man gets 20 months in Fort Dix terror plot

Jerseyan let three defendants use his guns


Star-Ledger Staff

A South Jersey man swept up in the alleged plot to attack Fort Dix was sentenced yesterday to 20 months in prison on weapons charges.

Agron Abdullahu of Buena Vista Township was the only one of the six men arrested last year not charged with conspiring to kill U.S. soldiers. Instead, he admitted letting three of the suspects who were illegal immigrants use his guns at a Pennsylvania firing range.

But by the end of yesterday's two-hour hearing, U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler acknowledged that this was more than a garden-variety gun case and deserved a sentence to match. The term he imposed was twice as long as the sentence Abdullahu sought and four months longer than the maximum term recommended by federal probation officials.

"I am convinced that this was not as innocent as he would like us to believe," Kugler said.

The hearing also offered new glimpses into the evidence prosecutors hope to use at trial later this year against the other defendants -- and some of the pitfalls they might face.

Abdullahu fled Kosovo with his family during the Serbian purge and resettled in South Jersey in 1999, landing a job as a supermarket baker. He later became friendly with Shain, Eljvir and Dritan Duka, three young Albanians who snuck into the country two decades ago and were living in Cherry Hill.

Prosecutors said the Dukas, Mohamad Shnewer of Cherry Hill and Serdar Tatar of Philadelphia were "homegrown terrorists" who wanted to storm Fort Dix with automatic weapons.

According to the criminal complaints filed after their arrest last May, the men ventured twice to Pennsylvania for weapons training, watched al Qaeda videos of attacks against U.S. soldiers, and talked openly about their hatred for the United States. The case was built on recordings by two FBI informants who infiltrated the group.

Abdullahu pleaded guilty last fall to letting the Dukas use his guns. But foreshadowing a defense the others might adopt, his federal public defender, Richard Coughlin, yesterday challenged the government's portrayal of the case.

Coughlin said the Pocono trip was a vacation, where 15 men and boys swam, played basketball, rode horseback, had snowball fights and watched movies. The much-hyped jaunt to the firing range was so disorganized and chaotic, he said, that one of the government informants complained to his FBI handler that someone might get hurt.

"It's not military, it's not militia, it's not training," Coughlin said. "It's just boys (playing) in the Poconos, that's what it is."

In a memo to the judge, the public defender also disclosed that it was one of the wire-wearing informants -- not one of the defendants -- who laughed aloud after watching video of a U.S. soldier losing his hand in combat. And he raised questions about credibility, noting that one informant had lodged false allegations before, when he told agents a business rival of his was a terrorist.

Coughlin was careful not to deny the existence of a terror plot. Instead, he noted that the Dukas had grown increasingly focused on their religion and that their friendship with Abdullahu had waned.

In a brief apology to the judge, Abdullahu said he disregarded their anti-American comments as chest-pounding bluster. "If I even knew that they were going to do anything of this sort, that would've been the end of that," he said.

Prosecutors, however, pointed out that the case was not built on one inappropriate remark. "Instead, what we have are repeated references to and extended discussions about training to be a sniper and killing U.S. military personnel," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Hammer told the judge.

Kugler said he received letters from more than 100 of Abdullahu's relatives, friends and co-workers, praising him as a kind, thoughtful person who was grateful to the United States. But the judge also read aloud Abdullahu's recorded statements, when he talked about being "bored with life," firing rifles and building bombs.

"All very disturbing things," the judge said. "All evidencing a mindset for violent action."

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