Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Brothers charged with plotting terrorism trace roots to Macedonia

PHILADELPHIA: The three Duka brothers, Eljvir, Shain and Dritan, not only prayed at Al Aqsa Islamic Center here, they also were slowly repairing its roof.

The work came naturally to them, as members of a large family of ethnic-Albanian immigrants who own more than a dozen roofing companies in New York and New Jersey. They fixed the roof for free, at the prodding of their imam and in the hopes of accruing good deeds.

But the job remains half finished after the brothers and three other Muslim men were arrested Tuesday, charged with plotting an attack against soldiers at the Fort Dix military reservation in New Jersey. Their arrests reverberated through the extended Duka family, as far as Debar, a village in Macedonia near the Albanian border that is the family's ancestral home.

"It's fine to be a religion man," said Murat Duka, 55, a distant relative of the six and the first of about 200 Dukas to move to the Northeast United States, arriving in 1975 to work as a roofer. "But if you get too much to religion, you get out of your mind and you do stupid things."

In Debar, where the influence of U.S. émigrés is seen in restaurants named Manhattan, Dallas and Miami, Elez Duka, a first cousin of the three suspects, expressed disbelief that they could have been involved in a plot inspired by Islamic radicals.

"This has to be political propaganda," said Elez Duka, 29, who has opened an Internet café there with money sent by his brothers in the United States. "America has always helped us."

A portrait is emerging of the five who face charges of conspiring to kill U.S. military personnel, which could send them to prison for life. The men vowed in taped conversations "to kill as many soldiers as possible" in the name of Islam, the federal authorities said. They had no other clear motivation. Much less is known about the sixth, Agron Abdullahu, 24, who faces lesser charges, carrying a possible 10 years' imprisonment.

Serdar Tatar, 23, a Turkish immigrant who lives in Philadelphia, had grown so religious over the past two years that his father, Muslim Tatar, said they had become estranged. Serdar Tatar's wife, pregnant with twins, said he was so busy working he rarely had time to pray, but sometimes read the Koran and helped her 11-year-old son with his homework.

Mohamad Shnewer, 22, a Palestinian born in Amman, kept up an exhausting routine of work, sleep and prayer for the past year, his mother said. He drove a cab at night in Philadelphia, had recently dropped out of college to help the family pay two mortgages and attended services occasionally at Al Aqsa.

And there were the Dukas, 23, 26 and 28, who came to the United States illegally more than a decade ago. The brothers, like so many of their relatives and fellow ethnic-Albanian immigrants in the area, have owned a pizzeria and two roofing companies.

The brothers are not from an Arabic-speaking nation - although one is married to a woman from Jordan - but they sometimes used Arabic names for their roofing businesses: Qadr, which in Arabic means "destiny," and Insalah, a variant of inshallah, "if God wills it."

The lives of the Dukas and the other defendants began to intersect as early as 1999, when Tatar, Shnewer and Eljvir Duka were enrolled at Cherry Hill West High School in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

One of Shnewer's five sisters married Eljvir Duka and is pregnant. On Wednesday, Lamese and Israa Shnewer, 12 and 14, stood on the threshold of their house in Cherry Hill holding tabloid newspapers with their brother's picture on the front. Cars slowed as they passed. People snapped pictures with their cellphones.

Israa pointed to a neighbor's house and said, "They hated us to begin with."

The criminal complaint portrays Shnewer as the leader of the group, speaking most frequently in taped conversations about tactics. But his mother, Faten Shnewer, said in an interview that the charges "made no sense."

She said that televised images from the war in Iraq had angered him and she wondered whether, while he was watching the news, he had said something that was misinterpreted by the authorities.

"He's a good boy," she said as she stood in the doorway of a relative's home. "I'm proud of who we are."

Co-workers and relatives described him as shy with a sweet nature. "Mohamad was like a teddy bear," said Jaime Antrim, manager of a restaurant in Marlton, New Jersey, where Shnewer once worked. He showed his religious devotion in some ways - he would not eat pizza cut with a knife that had been in contact with pork - but served alcohol and did not break for daily prayers.

Muslim Tatar, who owns the SuperMario's Pizza restaurant near Fort Dix from which the authorities assert the suspects took a map of the base, said his son Serdar had gravitated to radical Islam in recent years, opening a rift between them.

"I'm not a religious person," he said. "I don't want my son to be a religious person, but he was a religious person."

The family came to the United States from Turkey in 1992 and settled in Cherry Hill. Muslim Tatar said he believed that his son fell in with the wrong crowd in high school, when he met some of the others now in jail with him. On one occasion, Tatar said, his son brought one of the others to visit him at the pizza parlor in Cookstown, New Jersey.

"I told him, 'I don't like this kid, I don't want you together,' " Tatar recalled.

Although the criminal complaint says Serdar Tartar became familiar with Fort Dix from delivering pizzas to the base and procured the map in November, his wife said he had not worked at the restaurant in two years, and his father said SuperMario's had been delivering to the base for only three months. "Nobody took a map," the elder Tatar said.

After quitting SuperMario's, Serdar Tatar went to work for a 7-Eleven and recently became manager of one of the chain's stores near Temple University in Philadelphia. His wife of one year, Khalida Mirzhyeiva, who was born in Russia, said he had worked long shifts and rarely gone to the mosque.

"He planned to have a child and a good family," Mirzhyeiva, 29, said by telephone in an interview that was translated from Russian by a neighbor. "He isn't a terrorist. He follows his religion, the Muslim religion, and he cannot kill."

Dritan, Eljvir and Shain Duka were all born in Debar, Macedonia. The extended family's trek to the United States began with Murat Duka, who opened a roofing company in New York in 1980, five years after he arrived. When conditions in Macedonia deteriorated in 1985, a stream of relatives began coming to New York, where some learned the roofing trade from him, he said.

Today, about 40 to 50 Duka families live in New York and New Jersey. Many of them settled on Staten Island, a borough of New York City that is home to a thriving mosque for ethnic Albanians.

"Everybody's shocked from this," said Ferid Bedrolli, imam of the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center on Staten Island where the Duka brothers and their father used to pray before moving to Cherry Hill in the late 1990s.

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