by Joseph Ryan/The Star-Ledger
A federal judge today sentenced three Muslim immigrants to life in prison for planning an attack on Fort Dix, saying radical ideology and hatred for America drove their plot to kill U.S. soldiers.
The men, brothers from the Balkans, were among five defendants convicted in December of conspiring to target the Burlington County base in a crime prosecutors said was inspired by al-Qaida and proved that homegrown jihadists were plotting inside America.
"Nothing has a greater impact on society than the crime of terrorism," U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler said, before delivering the sentences in a heavily guarded Camden courtroom packed with government officials, the men's relatives and reporters.
Dritan, Shain and Eljvir Duka -- each delivered rambling statements before they were sentenced, quoting the Koran and Thomas Jefferson as they accused prosecutors of manufacturing the case to scare the American people.
"Their job was to make us look as monstrous as possible" said Eljvir Duka, 25.
Dritan Duka, 30, and Shain Duka, 28, were sentenced to an additional 30 years for weapons charges. Federal inmates are not eligible for parole.
Lawyers for the three men said they plan to appeal.
The Dukas, ethnic Albanians who were born in Macedonia, have lived illegally in the U.S. since slipping across the border through Mexico in 1984. They ran a pizzeria and worked as roofers. Shain and Eljvir Duka attended Cherry Hill High School West.
But prosecutors said they also held fervent religious beliefs and studied jihadist videos and lectures. While they had no known ties to established terror groups, authorities said the men trained with guns and scouted Fort Dix and other bases for possible attacks.
"I think that had the FBI and their partners not caught these men, we would have been attending funerals of military personnel at Fort Dix," said acting U.S. Attorney Ralph J. Marra.
After a 12-week trial, the Dukas were convicted of conspiracy and weapons charges but acquitted of attempted murder. The two other defendants, Mohamad Shnewer and Serdar Tatar, are to be sentenced Wednesday.
Defense attorneys argued the men were goaded into the plot by paid government informants. They also said the men talked brazenly but never took concrete steps to kill anyone.
Michael Huff, a lawyer for Dritan Duka, urged the judge to keep in mind the plot was never executed.
"The punishment should not reflect what might have happened," he said.
The case relied heavily on undercover informants.
The investigation began in January 2006 with a tip from a Circuit City clerk in Mount Laurel. Two men dropped off an 8-millimeter tape and wanted it converted to a DVD. The tape showed the defendants firing rifles and shouting Islamic battle cries. The clerk called police.
FBI agents and two paid cooperators spent the next 15 months shadowing the suspects, recording conversations and searching their computers.
U.S. Deputy U.S. Attorney William E. Fitzpatrick said the men were driven solely by their fanatic religious beliefs.
"There was no financial motive. There was nothing else. They seemed to be motivated entirely by revenge, by hatred -- and by animosity of our way of life," said Fitzpatrick, who prosecuted the case with Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael A. Hammer Jr.
During the investigation, authorities recorded hundreds of conversations with the defendants with help from two informants.
On one of the tapes, Eljvir Duka, who is married to Shnewer's sister, said he wanted to "train sniper" and wondered how close he would have to stand from the White House to shoot President Bush.