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Hyping Another Terrorist Threat: Much Ado About the Fort Dix Pizza Plot

NICOLE COLSON
Counterpunch
Tuesday May 22, 2007 

To listen to government officials and the mainstream media, the six New Jersey men arrested for allegedly plotting an attack on the Fort Dix military base were well organized and nearly "ready to strike."

But like all of the government's claimed victories in "fighting terrorism," there are disturbing holes in the story that should raise questions about scapegoating and scaremongering.

The U.S. attorney's office in New Jersey announced May 8 that five men--Jordanian-born U.S. citizen Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer; Turkish-born legal U.S. resident Serdar Tatar; and brothers Dritan, Eljvir and Shain Duka, ethnic Albanians from the former Yugoslavia who were reportedly in the U.S. illegally--had been charged with "plotting to kill as many soldiers as possible in an armed assault at the Fort Dix Army base."

A sixth defendant, Agron Abdullahu, a legal resident also from the former Yugoslavia, is charged with illegally holding weapons for the others.

The FBI says it learned of the supposed plot when the men went to a Circuit City store and asked a clerk to transfer a jihad training video of themselves onto a DVD. They were arrested after allegedly attempting to purchase weapons from an undercover FBI agent.

According to the government, the men had conducted surveillance on Fort Dix, obtained computerized ballistic simulations and stolen a map of Fort Dix from a pizza shop located near the base in order to help plan their attack.

But the extent of their supposed military-style "training" appears to be trips to a firing range in the Poconos and playing paintball in the woods. According to the Washington Post, the indictment against the men "indicates that the group had no rigorous military training and did not appear close to being able to pull off an attack."

Nor do court papers indicate that the suspects themselves were convinced of their own supposed plan. At one point, for example, they express doubt at the thought of obtaining automatic weapons--noting that they are, after all, illegal.

The media's reports on the arrests immediately deemed the six as "Muslim fanatics" and "Jersey jihadists." But some of the men were known to be not particularly religious. In fact, according to the New York Times, investigators have quietly admitted that "there is little indication that they were devout--or even practicing--Muslims."

Perhaps most troubling, however, is the FBI's use of two paid "informants" in the case. One of the informants, according to the Times, "railed against the United States, helped scout out military installations for attack, offered to introduce his comrades to an arms dealer and gave them a list of weapons he could procure, including machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades."

That begs the question: how far would the supposed "plot" have gone had the FBI not been there to push it forward?

In fact, in November, Tatar himself contacted police in Philadelphia, telling a sergeant he had been approached by a man who "pressured him to acquire maps of Fort Dix." He even told the sergeant he was worried that that "the incident was terrorist-related."

The Feds claim that Tatar was simply trying to throw off suspicion and determine if the first informer was a plant. But the fact that one of the defendants in a supposed terrorist cell actually called police to report possible terrorist activity raises serious questions about the truth of the government's claims.


* * *

Over-hyped declarations about terrorism prosecutions are nothing new for Bush administration. It has announced one high-profile terrorism case after another, but few have ever been substantiated, and many more have been riddled with racism, entrapment and abuses.

Last fall, for example, several men of Middle Eastern descent were arrested in separate incidents in Ohio and Michigan on terrorism charges. They had aroused suspicion by buying too many cell phones--and, in one case, taking pictures of a bridge. Charges were later quietly dropped, but not until after the government smeared the men in the media as potential terrorists.

A similar pattern has played out in the case of seven men of Haitian descent arrested in Florida last year on charges that they were plotting to blow up Chicago's Sears Tower.

Though the charges are still pending, the case against the men rests on little more than the fact that they allegedly gave an FBI informant lists of shoe sizes in order to purchase military boots for them. Even the FBI was forced to admit that the plan was more "aspirational than operational."

As a recent editorial in the Palm Beach Post commented, "[A]nyone heard lately about the so-called 'Miami 7'? The Justice Department with much ballyhoo last year claimed the five U.S. citizens, one legal permanent resident and one Haitian national had conspired with al-Qaeda 'to levy war against the United States'...But Justice may face an uphill climb to show how the men were anything other than poor, unsophisticated street vendors and easy dupes when the government's agent came casting suggestion."

Then there is so-called "dirty-bomber" Jose Padilla, who spent more than three years in solitary confinement in a military brig as an officially designated enemy combatant for allegedly plotting to take part in an al-Qaeda plot to detonate a radioactive bomb inside the U.S.

When the Bush administration suddenly announced in November 2005 that federal criminal charges had been filed against Padilla, the indictment made no mention of the dirty bomb plot or most of the other original charges.

Today, Padilla's lawyers say he has been so psychologically damaged by the physical and psychological abuse he suffered at the hands of the government that he can no longer participate in his own defense.

Likewise, former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian remains in prison today despite the fact that a jury acquitted him of the most serious terrorism charges against him and deadlocked on several lesser counts.

To end his imprisonment and be reunited with his family, Al-Arian agreed to plead guilty to a single count of supporting the nonviolent activities of a Palestinian charity. Yet his release date has come and gone, and he remains behind bars--because federal prosecutors now claim he is a "material witness" to other trumped-up terrorism prosecutions, and want to force him to testify.

Despite government assertions, the truth is that Al-Arian has been prosecuted for his political beliefs and defense of Palestinian rights--not for any "terrorism."


* * *

A closer look at the government's own records show that the "war on terror" has yielded few convictions.

Late last year, a study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University found that in the first eight months of 2006, the Justice Department prosecuted 46 international terrorism cases--but declined to bring charges in 209 cases that the FBI or other agencies had referred, frequently because of a lack of real evidence.

"It is clear that the prosecutors are deciding that a lot of the investigations being recommended do not cut the mustard and do not meet their standards," David Burnham, the co-director of TRAC, told the New York Times.

In all, the study found that in nearly 6,500 cases treated as "terrorism" investigations by the Justice Department since September 11, only about one in five defendants have been convicted.

And the average sentence for those convicted in "international terrorism" cases was just 20 to 28 days, and many received no jail time at all, the study found. The reason: Many of these cases involve lesser charges like immigration violations or fraud.

In other words, the prosecutions that the government labels as being about "terrorism" are almost never actually about terrorism.

In fact, a February audit released by the Justice Department's inspector general found that the department usually "could not provide support for the numbers reported or could not identify the terrorism link used to classify statistics as terrorism-related."

Convictions for immigration violations, marriage fraud and drug trafficking were counted as "terrorism convictions" by the Justice Department. Such cases included: charges brought against a marriage-broker for being paid to arrange six fraudulent marriages between Tunisians and U.S. citizens; the prosecution of a Mexican citizen who falsely identified himself as another person in a passport application; and the case of a suspect charged with dealing firearms without a license.

As one anonymous former prosecutor recently told Truthout.org's William Fisher, "U.S. attorneys are well aware of their bosses' priorities. Since 9/11, all of them have been under pressure to bring terrorism prosecutions.

"In many cases, that has led them and their superiors, as well as prominent politicians, to call high-profile press conferences where they announce terrorism charges against people, but when they show up in court, there are no actual terrorism charges."

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