The paid informant who helped build the case against five men accused of plotting to attack soldiers in New Jersey took the witness stand Tuesday, but much of what jurors heard from him came in the form of secretly taped conversations with one of the accused.
"We have talked a lot and we are still talking. What can we do?" informant Mahmoud Omar asked defendant Mohamad Shnewer during a 2006 discussion in which both decried U.S. treatment of Muslims.
Omar kept asking similar questions in Arabic at Shnewer's family's home in Cherry Hill. Once, Shnewer's answer was to seek help from God, saying he had helped the cause by unleashing Hurricane Katrina.
A moment later, Shnewer, then 21, had another idea.
"Here, if you want to do anything, there's Fort Dix," he said. "I am not exaggerating how easily you can strike an American base."
Buying guns in nearby Camden
Omar responds enthusiastically, telling Shnewer that he served four years in the Egyptian army, that he could turn a microwave into a bomb and suggesting they could buy guns in nearby Camden.
Shnewer responds: "No, I mean heavy weapons — not machine guns. ... You need mortars and you need RPGs."
The conversation turns to other topics, but Omar keeps bringing it back to the military base. "Fort Dix comes to my mind as well," he says. "This country must be attacked."
Omar, a 39-year-old Egyptian, spent more than a year wearing a wire as authorities sorted out whether they had a case against the five men ultimately accused of plotting an attack that was never carried out. Testimony from the thin man with thin hair — who will have received nearly $240,000 from the government for his cooperation by the year's end — is expected to last several days.
Prosecutors say Omar's work was key to stopping extremists' violent plans. The defendants face charges of conspiracy to kill military personnel, attempted murder and weapons offenses.
Lawyers for Shnewer, an American citizen who was born in Jordan, and the other suspects — Dritan, Shain and Eljvir Duka, illegal immigrants from the former Yugoslavia and Serdar Tatar, a legal U.S. resident born in Turkey — argue it was Omar who tried to create and pull the other men into a plot that otherwise would not have existed.
Shnewer's lawyer, Rocco Cipparone, has quizzed officials about how often Omar met with his client without recording their conversations. He's likely to argue that Omar could have suggested an attack on Fort Dix during one of those moments.
Attorneys attacking credibility
Defense lawyers are trying to undermine the credibility of Omar, who came to the United States illegally. He was later convicted of bank fraud and also has admitted selling a Social Security number.
On the witness stand Tuesday, Omar said he first met Shnewer in 2005 and told his FBI handlers that Shnewer was "tight with the religion." Omar said he and Shnewer also talked about a late leader of the insurgents in Iraq.
The government says the defendants took steps toward carrying out a plot by training and running gathering reconnaissance from around Fort Dix and other military installations in New Jersey, as well as Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
In earlier testimony Tuesday, John Stermel, an investigator assigned to an FBI counterterrorism task force, acknowledged the government did not have evidence of men besides Shnewer talking about details on an attack on Fort Dix.
Shain Duka's lawyer, Michael Riley, asked Stermel about the level of planning for an attack.
"You consider driving down the road and looking at a military base reconnaissance?" Riley asked.
"Yes, sir," responded Stermel, who spent about eight hours overall testifying on Monday and Tuesday.
Stermel gave the same answer when Riley asked if 10 men taking turns shooting four guns at a firing range — as the defendants did — constitutes training.