Fort Dix Security Remains a Concern

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The arrest of six Muslim men on charges of plotting a murderous attack on Fort Dix has exposed what may be a security vulnerability at the Army base: Pizza delivery drivers and other service workers are given wide access to the place.

Federal officials said one of the men, 23-year-old Serdar Tatar, used his delivery job as a pizza deliveryman to gain access to the base and scout it out for a potential attack. Another suspect, Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer, said Tatar used to make deliveries to Fort Dix and knew it "like the palm of his hand," according to federal prosecutors.

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, whose district includes Fort Dix, said he has long been concerned about who has access to the sprawling 31,000-acre Army installation located in the Pinelands region of New Jersey, about 20 miles east of Philadelphia.

"This whole affair just underscores the vulnerability," Smith said. "You don't know who's on your base. What the pizza deliveryman tells me is that when you have access, when you have frequent access, you get the lay of the land, so that if you do a terror attack it will cause that much more damage and loss of life."

Tatar was on the fort's approved list of delivery people, according Carolee Nesbit, a Fort Dix spokeswoman. Tatar had approval to access the base as part of his job with a nearby pizzeria run by his father.

"He was definitely on the list," she said. "He was a fill-in (driver)."

Before they are cleared to make deliveries at Fort Dix, drivers must register in advance, undergo a criminal background check, and obtain an access pass that has to be reviewed every 30 days.

Drivers who arrive at the military installation's gate are greeted by armed guards, who check their identification and issue a pass. Their vehicles are searched on a random basis. After they pass the gate, they can move about freely about the property, Nesbit said.

"Once they have received the pass, they're on," Nesbit said.

The delivery people are not followed or monitored once they clear security, she said.

"There are 16,000 people that come through the gates every day," she said. "It's practically impossible to follow everyone."

She said the fort considers its policy for screening delivery people adequate for now, but said it could be reviewed in the future.

Federal authorities publicized concerns over security at Fort Dix and adjacent McGuire Air Force Base in 2003 when they arrested three dozen base contractors and charged them with using false Social Security numbers to obtain entry badges.

The sweep, called Operation Secured Eagle, was initiated by Pentagon investigators to discover security gaps.

"We were just trying to identify, along with the commanders, if there was a problem," said Resident Agent in Charge James Murawski, who oversaw the case for the Defense Criminal Investigative Service in New Jersey. Since then, he said, "I believe they've taken more steps to assure security."

Tatar's father, Muslim Tatar, who owns the Super Mario's Restaurant near the base, denied Wednesday that his son ever delivered to the fort. He also said Serdar hadn't worked in the shop for more than two years - before the FBI initiated its investigation.

"I believe in my heart he's not guilty," Tatar said.

The FBI said the plot was foiled after the men asked a store clerk to copy a video of them firing assault weapons and screaming about jihad.

The men - Shnewer, Tatar, Dritan Duka, 28; Shain Duka, 26; Eljvir Duka, 23; and Agron Abdullahu, 24 - appeared in federal court Tuesday in Camden and were ordered held without bail for a hearing Friday.

Muslim Tatar, 54, was born a Muslim in Turkey, but said he is not religious, and doesn't understand how his son could have gotten mixed up with religious fanatics.

"I don't like religion," Tatar said.

U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said Wednesday that investigators secretly recorded Tatar talking about delivering pizza in Fort Dix.

Security measures extend beyond the front gates of the fort, which are well protected by armed military personnel, and fortified by vehicle barriers. The perimeter of much of the fort is surrounded by a chain link fence.

But there are numerous portions of the fort, including areas where soldiers train and gather for maneuvers, that are not protected by any barriers.

Main Street, the primary road through neighboring Cookstown, continues as a public road along the edge of the fort, accessible to anyone, and is regularly traveled by private cars and trucks.

On Tuesday, hours after the arrests and the plot were made public, at least two of the areas directly off the road were populated by dozens of soldiers conducting training exercises not more than 50 yards off the main road.

On Wednesday morning, a dozen soldiers ate breakfast under a wooden canopy in an area of the fort known as Bastogne Range, about 30 yards from a road that carries civilian traffic.

One of the suspects, 22-year-old Shnewer, of Cherry Hill, was secretly recorded confiding his intentions to a government informant.

"My intent is to hit a heavy concentration of soldiers," he was recorded as saying, according to court documents. "This 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."

Nisbet said security is present wherever military personnel are gathered at the fort, even if it is not visible from the road.

"At the Bastogne Range, what you are looking at is armed military personnel there," she said.

In addition to the weapons each individual soldier may carry, she said, "There is security on these ranges."

Although there are no physical barriers preventing entry to the areas, "They keep a very close watch on who pulls in and who approaches," she said.

Smith, the congressman whose district includes Fort Dix, said the fort needs to better protect areas along public roads.

"One goal of the jihadists is to hurt and kill as many Americans as possible, and they can certainly do that from one of these roads," he said. "Roads running through military bases are a problem throughout the country."

Sheila Bertrand, a manager at the Clothing and Sales Barber Shop on Fort Dix, said security has tightened since the arrests.

"The flow of traffic has slowed down," said Bertrand, who has been working on post for 20 years and has lived in the area for more than 40 years. "We have IDs and all, but now they're double checking. If you have somebody in the car, they want to see their ID. They have tightened up."

Bertrand said deliveries are common on the property, including to her store. She said she believes officials have to be more cautious of who is allowed on the installation now.

"Everybody is watching what's going on, being more conservative of what's happening," she said.

Associated Press writers Kathy Matheson in New Hanover Township, Jeffrey Gold in Newark and Tom Hester and Daniela Flores in Trenton contributed to this story.

(Copyright 2007 by Action News and the Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

(Copyright ©2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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