NJ's Legal Presence Requirements Made a Difference in the Fort Dix Plot

By Janice Kephart on December 30, 2008
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Last week saw a big win for prosecutors and the FBI with the conviction of three illegal immigrant brothers and two permanent legal residents for the plot to commit a terrorist attack against military personnel at Fort Dix. The convictions for conspiring to kill military personnel (but acquitted of attempted murder) indicate that aggressive pursuit of terrorist plots before they happen can result in convictions. Yet no one is talking about the fact that informants were able to infiltrate the group of five in part because they were able to present the conspirators with something most of them didn’t have – a legal form of U.S. identification.

Fort Dix plot 2007

In public acknowledgments that al Qaeda is ready and able to hit the United States again in a display more disastrous than 9/11, Secretary Chertoff acknowledged earlier this year that we have not yet secured our borders nor cut off the means terrorists use to stay here and conduct operations. What is particularly disturbing is that in the midst of such discussion there continues to be debate over secure ID initiatives such as the REAL ID Act. The most dangerous argument goes like this: secure IDs will not help secure the nation.

That’s been proven wrong by the evidence of the Fort Dix case, whose now-convicted defendants were arrested in May 2007 for planning mass killings at the Fort Dix Army base, together with an accomplice. Three were in the United States illegally and under New Jersey state law enacted in 2002, could not obtain an ID. Without an ID, they could not buy weapons legally. Because the men were unable to buy weapons legally, they went outside the cell to buy the weapons, exposing the plot to undercover law enforcement agents. It was at this point – after more than a year of investigation – that the plot had sufficient evidence to be stopped. This is exactly the type of result the 9/11 Commission envisioned when it recommended more secure IDs.

The Fort Dix terror plot spanned three states and included surveillance of the U.S Coast Guard facility in Philadelphia and the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, plus the plotters’ training facilities in the Poconos of Pennsylvania. Two conspirators are legal permanent residents and the three Duka brothers are not, despite living in the U.S. for 23 years. None of the brothers was able to obtain driver’s licenses in New Jersey because they were here illegally. One had earlier managed to acquire a driver’s license, but it had expired in 2003. Meanwhile, in 2002, New Jersey began the process of verifying identity by requiring proof of lawful presence in order to obtain a driver’s license. Had the other two applied for driver’s licenses before New Jersey “raised the bar” on who could receive licenses, along with tightening personnel practices in its Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), they might well have obtained them.

The fact is that after the 9/11 investigation revealed that the 19 hijackers had acquired 30 state-issued IDs amongst them – and at least seven by fraud – most states wanted to assure that ID applicants had legal immigration status prior to issuing IDs. The Association of American Motor Vehicle Administrators, which develops best practices with state DMVs, had assigned a task force to make recommendations on the problem. AAMVA did that, including a recommendation to verify legal status. Like New Jersey, 21 other states also passed laws that limited driver’s licenses to legal, nonimmigrant residents and began instituting other ID issuance safeguards.

The evidence describes an operation of five men determined and intent on acquiring a large and varied cache of legal and illegal weapons. To purchase one weapon, the men solicited help from a family member with a Pennsylvania license. Clarifying acquisition of this weapon to his co-conspirators on tape, one of the illegal brothers said: “It’s my gun but he bought it under his name.” In January 2007, the three brothers were concerned they could not obtain firearms legally because they did not have state issued driver’s licenses, a requirement for purchasing a firearm in New Jersey and neighboring states.

In March 2007, one of the Duka brothers discussed with the confidential informant in the case that he was worried about illegally acquiring weapons, yet he knew he had little choice without an ID. A couple weeks later, this brother gave the informant a list of nine different weapons the group needed, including hand guns, shotguns, and semi-automatic assault weapons. Law enforcement copied the list. By early April, there were requests for as many as four or five of any single type of weapon. However, the brother setting up the buy began to express reservations about relying on unknown persons for the purchase of the weapons and asked the confidential informant, “whether the source [for the buy] was religious.”

For those who say Fort Dix wouldn’t have happened…

News reports last week burst with commentary akin to “these defendants didn’t deserve it!” I wonder if the same commentary might have been made about the 1993 World Trade Center bombing if Ramzi Yousef – the then-unknown nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who masterminded the plot to finish Yousef’s attempt on 9/11 – had been stopped by the FBI before that bombing took place. Something like “It is unlikely this young man who knew no one inside the United States before he (illegally) arrived at JFK in the months before the 1993 bombing, and merely had a few bomb manuals on him, could have actually carried out such a plot.” And for those that think that homegrown terrorists can’t commit mayhem and kill innocent people, just look to Timothy McVeigh. I’m sure the victims of Oklahoma City – and the parents of the children who died on site in daycare that day – will agree that the local guy gone bad is just a bad apple, and poses no threat at all.

There is no denying this was a terror plot. Soon before the plot was stopped, on March 10, 2007, one plotter discussed joining the U.S. Army to kill U.S. soldiers from the “inside,” remarking that he “only had one mind, how to kill American soldiers.” Later in the conversation two of the illegal brothers claimed, “We can do a lot of damage with 7 people.” This conversation mimics a prior one wherein a key operational conspirator described his group’s mission in attacking Fort Dix: “My intent is to hit a heavy concentration of soldiers… That is exactly what we are looking for. You hit four, five or six Humvees and light the whole place [up] and retreat completely without any losses.” The plotters also had a hard drive that contained two tapes: one labeled “19” that appeared to contain the last will and testament of two of the 9/11 hijackers and another a video of Osama bin Ladin calling viewers to “jihad.”

Terrorist travel was key to the plot. The suspect who appears to have been the operational leader had obtained U.S. citizenship and had the driver’s license that enabled him to conduct surveillance as a Philadelphia taxi driver. However, it was the group’s inability to use the tactic of acquiring state-issued IDs – the tactic used so successfully by the 9/11 hijackers – that curtailed their activities and made them more susceptible to accepting support from an informant.

Other terrorists who have abused driver’s licenses

Kansi, 1993. Convicted terrorists also have abused the driver’s license system. Take for example Mir Aimal Kansi, who killed two people outside CIA headquarters on January 25, 1993. He was able to case Washington, D.C., and approach the CIA for the shootings under the guise of working as a courier. To become a courier he had to obtain a Virginia driver’s license. He did so, despite being a visa-overstaying illegal alien and having fraudulently applied for both political asylum and amnesty under a 1986 law. Again, there was no system in place that insisted on legal presence in the United States in order to attain a state-issued ID.

al Marabh, 2001. A Millennium conspiracy associate, Nabil al Marabh, was caught on June 27, 2001, trying to illegally enter the U.S. in the back of a tractor-trailer near Niagara Falls. He told authorities he had regularly traveled illegally between Canada and the United States. He had also received five licenses over 13 months from Massachusetts, Illinois, Ontario, and Florida as well as a commercial driver’s license and a permit to haul hazardous materials, including explosives and caustic chemicals. al Marabh had stayed at a terrorist guesthouse in Pakistan known as the House of Martyrs, engaged in weapons training in Afghanistan, and worked for the Muslim World League – then an important source of al Qaeda’s funds – in the early 1990s. Jordanian Millennium co-conspirators told authorities that al Marabh was an al Qaeda operative. He was arrested after stabbing a man and had thousands of dollars worth of cash and amber jewels in his possession upon arrest.

His estranged wife, Huyhn T. Van, said that al Marabh had entered the United States from Canada in late 1996 or early 1997, and he was later deported by an immigration judge to Syria for his involvement in the Jordanian Millenium plot. While it is unclear what his exact immigration status was, the deportation and stated means of entry, along with al Marabh’s own statement that he regularly travelled across the Canadian border illegally seem to indicate he was in the United States illegally. A New York Times story of Sept. 21, 2001, states, "According to the Michigan Secretary of State's records, Mr. al Marabh first obtained a driver's license in August 2000, presenting an immigration card with a photo as well as driver's licenses from Ontario and Massachusetts. Less than two weeks later, Mr. al Marabh upgraded the license to the right to drive 18-wheelers that carry hazardous materials, including explosives and caustic chemicals. In recent weeks, he applied twice for duplicate licenses in Michigan."

9/11 hijackers. The 9/11 hijackers were highly aware of their legal status when they sought driver's licenses and state-issued IDs. In fact, only one hijacker failed to apply for a state-issued ID. This same hijacker knew he had overstayed his immigration status and even tried to travel to the Bahamas to get an extended length of stay, but was denied entry because he did not have a visa. Our investigation led us to believe that the hijackers thought that licenses and IDs were linked to legitimate status in the United States, and were concerned that if this hijacker was found out to be illegally in the United States, the entire operation might unravel. Rather than risk that, it was decided that he would present his passport to airline personnel on the morning of 9/11. We know that he did.


When New Jersey took its cue from the 9/11 Commission and tightened its ID issuance, law enforcement was provided the opportunity to track the immigrants as they moved underground to purchase weapons.

States like New Jersey are to be commended for taking steps to verify identities and legal residency. Such security measures do make a difference. Other measures include verifying birth records and Social Security numbers, checking for bad drivers, and sharing digital images of applicants to assure identities are not stolen or misused. In tightening up some very loose ID issuance processes, states are doing what 70% of Americans surveyed by Zogby/UPI in April 2007 said they support: contributing to homeland security through more secure driver’s licenses and IDs.

Now it is time for the incoming Obama administration to take heed and move forward with continued improvements in secure ID issues, while providing kudos to those states well on their way. Most of them are. Now the federal government just needs to continue to follow through.