CAMDEN, New Jersey (Reuters) - Five men were convicted on Monday of conspiracy to kill U.S. soldiers in a planned attack on an Army base in New Jersey that prosecutors described as a bid to wage Islamist holy war against America.
The U.S. attorney said he would seek life sentences for the five foreign-born defendants, who were also found not guilty on charges of attempted murder after an eight-week trial.
Prosecutors had told the court the defendants were inspired by al Qaeda. Defense attorneys had argued that while the men talked the talk of militancy, it was all bravado and they had no real intention of carrying out the attack on Fort Dix army base, which was never executed.
Family members and defense lawyers said they believed the verdicts were influenced by suspicion of Muslims since the September 11 al Qaeda attacks.
The defendants, all born outside the United States, are ethnic Albanian brothers Shain, Dritan and Eljvir Duka who together ran a roofing business in Cherry Hill, New Jersey; Serdar Tatar, a convenience store clerk who was born in Turkey; and Mohamad Shnewer, a Jordanian-born taxi driver from Philadelphia. They are aged 23 to 30.
Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra said prosecutors will press for sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Sentencing was set for April 22-23.
Dritan and Shain Duka were also found guilty of possessing weapons to be used in the planned attack.
The five defendants smiled as they entered the court but did not react visibly when the verdicts were read. Defense lawyers said they would consider an appeal after sentencing.
The men were arrested in May 2007 after a 14-month investigation in which two people working for the FBI infiltrated the group and obtained hundreds of hours of audio and video recordings of the men plotting an attack.
The probe was launched when an electronics store clerk went to the police after being asked by one of the men to copy a tape containing scenes of militants firing guns into the air.
As well as planning to attack Fort Dix, about 40 miles east of Philadelphia, prosecutors said the men discussed attacks on other military targets including Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and the U.S. Coast Guard in Philadelphia.
Serpil Tatar, sister of defendant Serdar Tatar, called the conviction “a big lie” that had undermined her faith in the United States. She denied her brother was a terrorist, saying: “My brother was crying for the people who died on September 11.”
Attorney Richard Sparaco said Tatar’s Muslim religion “seriously counted against him” in the trial.
Michael Riley, attorney for Shain Duka, said there was a danger people would accept the government’s charges of terrorism too readily in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
“We can’t accept whatever our government says at face value,” Riley said.
Jurors said they did not reach their verdict lightly.
“This has been one of the most difficult things that we have ever had to do,” the members of the sequestered jury said in a statement read to the court by U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler after six days of deliberations.
Marra rejected defense family claims the men were manipulated by FBI informants into plotting the attack and denied they were convicted because of their religion or ethnicity. “The verdict was based solely on the words and actions of these defendants,” he said.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Cynthia Osterman