Six Islamic militants from the former Yugoslavia and the Middle East were arrested on charges of plotting to attack the Fort Dix Army post.
In conversations secretly recorded by an FBI informant over the past year, the men talked about killing in the name of Allah and attacking U.S. warships that might dock in Philadelphia, according an FBI criminal complaint.
"This was a serious plot put together by people who were intent on harming Americans," U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said Tuesday. "We're very gratified federal law enforcement was able to catch these people before they acted and took innocent life."
One suspect reportedly spoke of using rocket-propelled grenades to kill at least 100 soldiers at a time, according to court documents.
"If you want to do anything here, there is Fort Dix and I don't want to exaggerate, and I assure you that you can hit an American base very easily," suspect Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer said in one conversation secretly recorded by a government informant, according to the criminal complaint.
"It doesn't matter to me whether I get locked up, arrested or get taken away," a suspect identified as Serdar Tatar said in another recorded conversation. "Or I die, it doesn't matter. I'm doing it in the name of Allah."
Another suspect, Eljvir Duka, was recorded saying: "In the end, when it comes to defending your religion, when someone is trying attacks your religion, your way of life, then you go jihad."
White House spokesman Tony Snow said Tuesday there is "no direct evidence" that the men had ties to international terrorism.
The FBI was tipped off in January 2006 when a shopkeeper alerted agents about a "disturbing" video he had been asked to copy onto a DVD, according to court documents. The video showed 10 men in their early 20s "shooting assault weapons at a firing range ... while calling for jihad and shouting in Arabic 'Allah Akbar' (God is great)," the complaint said.
Six of the 10 men on the tape were identified as those arrested in the plot. They were arrested Monday trying to buy automatic weapons from an FBI informant, officials said.
Christie said one of the suspects worked at Super Mario's Pizza in nearby Cookstown and delivered pizzas to the base.
"What concerns us is, obviously, they began conducting surveillance and weapons training in the woods and were discussing killing large numbers of soldiers," said Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd.
The six were scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Camden later Tuesday to face charges of conspiracy to kill U.S. servicemen, said Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey.
Four of the men were born in the former Yugoslavia, one in Jordan and one in Turkey, officials said. All had lived in the United States for years. Three were in the country illegally; two had green cards allowing them to stay permanently; the other is a U.S. citizen.
Besides Shnewer, Tatar and Eljvir Duka, the other men were identified in court papers as Dritan Duka and Shain Duka. Checks with Immigration and Customs Enforcement show that the Dukas were illegally in the U.S., according to FBI complaints unsealed with their arrests.
Five of the men lived in Cherry Hill, a Philadelphia suburb about 20 miles from Fort Dix.
"They were planning an attack on Fort Dix in which they would kill as many soldiers as possible," Drewniak said.
A law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity because documents in the case remain sealed, said the attack was stopped in the planning stages. The men also allegedly conducted surveillance at other area military institutions, including Fort Monmouth, a U.S. Army installation, the official said.
By March 2006, the group had been infiltrated by an informant who developed a relationship with Shnewer, according to court documents. The informant secretly recorded meetings in August in which Shnewer said he and the others were part of a group planning to attack a U.S. military base, the complaints said.
Shnewer named Fort Dix and a nearby Navy base, explaining that the group "could utilize six or seven jihadists to attack and kill at least one hundred soldiers by using rocket-propelled grenades" or other weapons, the complaints said. The Navy base was not named in the papers.
Fort Dix is used to train soldiers, particularly reservists. It also housed refugees from Kosovo in 1999.
The base has been closed to the public since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and has heavily armed guards at entrances, yet the main road through neighboring Cookstown cuts through the base and is accessible to the public.
The description of the suspects as "Islamic militants" renewed fears in New Jersey's Muslim community. Hundreds of Muslim men from New Jersey were rounded up and detained by authorities in the months following the 2001 attacks, but none was connected to that plot.
"If these people did something, then they deserve to be punished to the fullest extent of the law," said Sohail Mohammed, a lawyer who represented many of the detainees. "But when the government says 'Islamic militants,' it sends a message to the public that Islam and militancy are synonymous."
"Don't equate actions with religion," he said.