From star FBI witness to ostracism, loss

A rally outside the federal courthouse in Philadelphia was held June 1 to support the "Fort Dix Five" and their families and to vilify Mahmoud Omar and another informant. Zurata Duka (right) is the mother of three of the defendants.
A rally outside the federal courthouse in Philadelphia was held June 1 to support the "Fort Dix Five" and their families and to vilify Mahmoud Omar and another informant. Zurata Duka (right) is the mother of three of the defendants.
Posted: June 27, 2010

This is not the way Mahmoud Omar thought things would play out.

Omar, the Egyptian-born FBI informant who was the key prosecution witness in the Fort Dix terrorism trial, is sitting at the kitchen table in his two-bedroom apartment trying to make sense of what has happened to him.

He has an eviction notice for overdue rent, an application for welfare, a foundering export business, and an uncertain immigration status.

The South Jersey apartment is sparsely furnished. There is little food in the refrigerator.

Omar is living week to week, sometimes day to day, with his American-born wife, Jessica, who grew up in Maple Shade, and their two children, a daughter, 6, and a son, 3.

"How can this be?" he asks, his eyes flashing anger, dismay, and disappointment. "It was a good case. I help. Now I have what?"

His heavily accented voice trails off. "Nothing."

Chain-smoking cigarettes, Omar, 41, was talking publicly for the first time about his experience as an informant enlisted by the FBI as its point man in the Fort Dix investigation, and about the impact the case and its aftermath have had on his life.

Eighteen months after a federal jury in Camden convicted all five defendants, the star witness is unsure of his future and has doubts about his past.

Did he do the right thing?

Would he do it again?

What, if anything, does the government owe him?

Are he and his family collateral damage in the war on terror, cast adrift in a bureaucracy that has done little to acknowledge his contribution?

Or is he facing the predictable consequences of his own actions, a Muslim caught in a cultural and ethnic no-man's-land, unable to return to his roots, yet out of place in American suburbia?

"I lost my people," Omar said during one in a series of rambling interviews over the last month. "I lost my religion. And I can do nothing about it."

Unless you come from his culture, he said, it is almost impossible to understand what that means.

For Omar, his ability to function in America was built around a network of friends, relatives, and associates in the Muslim community.

That network, he said, no longer exists for him.

He has been ostracized because of what he did.

No matter, he said, that the five men he helped convict were accused of plotting to kill American soldiers. In a twisted way, he said, their actions are understandable in the Muslim community.

"For Muslims, we are all brothers, and I betrayed a brother," he said.

Omar does not go to a mosque anymore, he said, because he knows he will not be welcome.

No one had told him that. But, he said, touching his chest, "I know in here."

"Muslim people don't believe these kids did anything," he said. "And they are never going to believe it. They don't want to believe it."

A muscular, sharp-featured man with a closely shaved head and flashing dark eyes, Omar grew up in a small village near the city of Banha, about 30 miles north of Cairo.

He is the sixth of seven children. His mother and father, in their 80s, still live there. His father, now retired, once owned a small construction company.

People in his village, "they think I got $2 million from the FBI," Omar said. "They don't understand. They don't read. They are told things, and they believe them."

To many of them, he said, he is a traitor.

Back in this country, relatives and former business associates want nothing to do with him.

"The people I did business with are gone," he said. "They say, 'You made your choice. You helped the American government. Why should we help you? Let the American government help you.' "

Help, of course, is a relative term.

"I think he trusted the government more than I did," said his wife, 33. "His expectations were different. I had realistic expectations. I told the FBI, 'I just don't want this to destroy our lives.' "

Asked if she thought her husband was a hero, Jessica Omar, who converted to Islam about three years ago, shrugged.

"We never thought of it that way," she said. "Somebody had to do it. I'm not happy it was my husband."

(The Inquirer has agreed not to disclose her maiden name or the names of their children because of the family's safety concerns.)

William Granara, a professor of Arabic studies at Harvard University, said it appeared Omar was experiencing a "conflict of loyalties" not uncommon in the immigrant experience.

But for many Muslim immigrants, it is intensified because of "the sense of disempowerment and alienation" that the community feels.

That, Granara added, might explain how some Muslims would look at Omar and say, "How can you do this at a time when America is treating us this way?"

Past FBI contact

Mahmoud Omar had a history with the FBI.

That was what put him in the middle of what became one of the most sensational domestic terrorism investigations in the country.

A former Egyptian army soldier, he entered the United States illegally through Mexico around 1994. He made his way to New York and then to the Philadelphia area, in search of family and friends who, like himself, had come looking for a better life.

A Lebanese businessman befriended him, gave him a job, and taught him how to fix cars. Eventually, Omar began to buy and sell automobiles, picking them up at auctions and selling them through a loose network of associates.

Along the way he ran afoul of the law.

"I was stupid," he said. "I did a stupid thing."

In 2004, he pleaded guilty to bank fraud, admitting he had floated bad checks. He served nine months in prison and faced deportation.

At the time, he had a green card. He had married an American woman 15 years his senior. But his conviction looked like a ticket home.

Then the FBI came calling.

Post-9/11, the bureau was looking for "sources" in the Muslim community. Omar was able to help in the investigation of a Muslim American in Texas who was arranging phony driver's licenses for other immigrants.

As a result, he said, his deportation was put on hold.

The FBI has declined to comment about Omar. Consequently, much of what he says about his history with the bureau is impossible to verify. His previous work for the FBI was only hinted at during the Fort Dix trial.

Omar said he believed his work in the phony-license investigation had earned him the right to stay in this country.

After divorcing his first wife, he moved from an apartment in Paulsboro to Cherry Hill, where he met Jessica in a diner where she worked.

"He kept asking me out," she said. "I turned him down, but he kept asking."

They dated, became engaged, had a daughter, planned to marry.

In April 2006, Omar heard from the FBI again. Agents showed him pictures of several men and asked if he knew any of them.

The photos came from a video that a customer had asked a Circuit City clerk to copy. The clerk contacted the FBI after he saw young Muslim men on the video shooting guns at a firing range and shouting what he believed were anti-American slogans.

The only individual Omar recognized was Mohamad Shnewer, the 22-year-old son of the owner of a halal grocery store in Pennsauken where he shopped.

"As soon as they show me the picture, I know," Omar said. "This kid, there is something wrong with him. . . . I would go to the store, and he would rant. He hated Americans . . . had blood in his eyes."

The FBI asked Omar if he would help the agency.

Figuring an investigation would take only "a few months," and unsure if he could say no, he agreed.

The five defendants

Unlike Omar, the five principal defendants in the Fort Dix case had grown up in America.

In addition to Shnewer, there were Serdar Tatar and the brothers Dritan, Shain, and Eljvir Duka. Foreign-born, all five had spent their childhoods in the Cherry Hill area.

They ranged in age from 22 to 28 when the investigation began.

Omar had had several conversations with Shnewer at the grocery store and had come away concerned. He said the 22-year-old had reminded him of young men he had known in Egypt: individuals who had turned religion into fanaticism and who had no concept of tolerance.

"Zarqawi was his hero," Omar said, referring to an Islamic terrorist leader noted for videotaping beheadings.

"I am not a religious person, but . . . I know . . . you cannot cut people's heads off and put it on TV. . . . No religion can have that."

When the investigation began, Omar was "making good money" running an export business that shipped cars and heavy equipment to Egypt.

But the deeper he got into the Fort Dix case, the less time he had to devote to the operation. Finally, the FBI asked him to put it on hold and concentrate on his undercover work.

"I hoped it was bulls-," he said, when investigators told him what they believed Shnewer and the others were up to. "In my mind, I think two or three months, it's going to be over.

"In my country," he said, snapping his fingers, "you talk s-, you get arrested. That's it."

Instead, he worked undercover for 13 months.

He wore a body wire to meetings. The apartment where he, his wife, and their young daughter lived on Cooper Landing Road in Cherry Hill was wired for sound and fitted with hidden cameras.

So was his car.

He took trips with Shnewer to Fort Dix and other area military facilities. All were potential targets for Shnewer, Omar said, adding that Shnewer talked incessantly about jihad.

Jessica Omar was aware of what her husband was doing and concerned about the audio and video equipment in the apartment.

"This was the nerve center of an investigation, and we're living there," she said.

Early in 2007, they got out.

Omar bought a $380,000 home in Marlton. His nephew arranged the mortgage, which Omar paid. It was one of those "family" business transactions that are so much a part of his culture, he said.

But the FBI wanted him to maintain the apartment and keep meeting the suspects there. So for several months, Omar had both a mortgage (about $3,800 a month plus taxes) and rent ($1,300 a month) to pay.

He also had a car payment, bills for new furniture, and other expenses.

He and his wife estimate that during the investigation, the FBI paid him $180,000, enough to cover living expenses and the extra costs of the investigation, but not as much as he would have earned had he been running his business.

He has been unable to get that business back on track. His nephew and other business associates no longer speak to him. No one will float him a loan.

Jessica Omar said the FBI, particularly case agent Jack Ryan, had tried to prepare them for what might come once the case went public.

There had been a discussion about going into the witness-protection program, she said, but neither she nor her husband was interested.

Among other things, she said, Ryan suggested her husband go to truck-driving school.

Her husband is an intelligent man, she said. He is entrepreneurial. But "he still has trouble reading and writing English."

Truck-driving school was not an option.

For the last two years, the Omars have bounced around South Jersey.

They had to abandon the house in Marlton after an investigator for the defense found out where they were living during the trial. Concerned for their security, the FBI told them to pack up and leave.

For nearly a year, they stayed in a small apartment in Cape May.

Two trips to Egypt, the second after the birth of their son, did little to stabilize their situation.

Their daughter struggled in school in Egypt. Their son, who has a learning disability, needs special-educational attention, they believe.

The experience has left Jessica Omar philosophical.

"It is what it is, and now we have to deal with it," she said.

Of the defendants, she added, "These kids grew up in America. They have no idea what it's like to live in a Muslim country."

This year, after returning from a second stay in Egypt, she and the children moved into an apartment in Camden County with her husband.

Last month, behind in their rent, they got an eviction notice.

Blaming the witnesses

On June 1, members of the Duka family organized a rally outside the federal courthouse at Sixth and Market Streets in Center City, where, later this year, lawyers for the Fort Dix defendants will appeal their convictions.

Protesters carried signs that declared "Free the Fort Dix Five" and that vilified Omar and Besnik Bakalli, another government informant.

The defense has portrayed Omar as an agent provocateur who put words into Shnewer's mouth and manipulated conversations with the others to draw them into a plot they had no intention of carrying out.

Zurata Duka, whose three sons are in jail, wore a placard with pictures of Omar and Bakalli as she marched in protest.

"They are the real criminals," she said.

Her husband, Ferik, nodded.

"I swear to God, 1,000 percent innocent," he said of his sons and their codefendants.

Ferik Duka said he only wanted justice for his sons.

He does not know what happened to Omar, he said. Nor does he care.

"I leave it up to God to exact punishment," he said.

Immigration status on hold

A few days after the protest, Mahmoud Omar was in state Superior Court in Camden, responding to the eviction notice. He was told he had until the end of the month to get his family out of the two-bedroom apartment.

Last week, they moved into a house owned by Jessica Omar's sister. But Omar said he was not sure how long they would be able to stay there.

It is important, the Omars believe, to get their daughter enrolled in a public school and to get their son involved in a program to address his learning disability.

Next on Omar's agenda is a date with immigration officials, who still have not resolved his status. The FBI is trying to help arrange a special visa that is available to those who have provided extraordinary assistance to the government, he said.

But the process could take 18 months or more. And to get the process going, Omar has to renounce his green card, meaning if he leaves the country, he cannot come back.

Without travel, he said, it will be impossible to get his export business going again. Without a legitimate immigration status, it will be difficult for him to find other work.

The off-the-books Muslim network through which he found jobs in the past is no longer available.

This is not how he expected things to work out.

"What are the rules in this country?" he asked last week. "I did the right thing, but by helping, I am going to lose everything? How can that be?"

He is not, he said again, a religious man.

"I'm an Egyptian," he added, taking another drag on a Marlboro Light. "I have friends who smoke hashish 24 hours a day. . . . We love life. We don't hate people."

He said he was tired of the rhetoric and the hate and the fanaticism that had come to define parts of his culture. But he is also disappointed and disillusioned by the smug arrogance and indifference that he finds in parts of American society and government.

There has to be a better way, he said. People have to matter.

"On Sept. 11," he said, "they were human beings who were killed. A bomb doesn't make a choice between a Muslim and a Christian. It just kills people."

He thought he was doing the right thing when he agreed to help the FBI.

But if he were asked again?

"If I know this would happen to me, to my wife, to my kids, I would say, 'No, put me in jail. . . . Let somebody else do it. It's not my problem.' "


Contact staff writer George Anastasia

at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.

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