2nd FBI informant to take stand in Fort Dix trial

November 30, 2008 8:21:43 AM PST
Besnik Bakalli came to the United States illegally, then returned to Albania, where he shot a man, then entered the United States again. Despite his troubled past, he's on the side of the U.S. Justice Department as it tries to prosecute five men accused of planning to sneak onto New Jersey's Fort Dix and kill soldiers at the base.

Bakalli, a paid informant in the case, is scheduled to begin testifying on Monday in what could be several days on the stand in the men's trial, which began in October and could stretch into 2009.

In opening arguments, a defense lawyer, Rocco Cipparone, told jurors about Bakalli and another paid informant: "There are blemishes so deep, the best cosmetologist in the world can't cover them up," he said.

The government, though, has portrayed the case as an example of a good investigation averting an attack that could have been one of the nation's most frightening examples of homegrown terrorism.

The suspects - all foreign-born Muslims who spent years in the comfortable Philadelphia suburb of Cherry Hill and were under 30 when they were arrested in May 2007 - face life in prison if convicted of the most serious charges they face, including conspiracy to murder military personnel and attempted murder.

Four of the men also face weapons charges.

Defense lawyers say their clients were not seriously planning an attack, but that the other informant, Mahmoud Omar, tried to make it seem they were so he could continue to be paid by the government.

Prosecutors acknowledge that Bakalli and Omar are flawed.

However, Deputy U.S. Attorney William Fitzpatrick told jurors in his opening statements that the FBI needed people like them - who would have credibility with the alleged plotters.

Fitzpatrick called Bakalli a "tough guy from the streets" who was about to be deported when he agreed to help the government.

"His main goal is not cash," Fitzpatrick told jurors. "His main goal is status."

The government has promised to recommend Bakalli get some kind of legal resident status in exchange for his help. The FBI also brought his mother and sister from Albania for safety last year, Fitzpatrick said.

How much Bakalli has been paid, though, has not been made public.

Cipparone told jurors a bit about Bakalli back in October, saying the informant entered the United States in 1999 using a phony passport. He then went back to Albania in 2000 to deal with a family matter.

"His sister had some kind of dispute, (and) he decided he was going to take care of it," Cipparone said. He said Bakalli shot the man who allegedly was giving his sister a problem, but the man was not killed.

Bakalli later returned to the U.S. and was convicted of the shooting in absentia. But in early 2007 - when Bakalli was working for the U.S. government - he was pardoned for the shooting.

It's likely jurors will hear much more about the shooting and its aftermath.

When Omar testified for 13 days, defense lawyers were not shy about digging into his history of bank fraud.

Government lawyers, though, hardly asked Omar anything.

For the first four days of his testimony, he sat at the witness stand as prosecutors played dozens of recordings he made while wearing a body wire. His job was mostly to clarify points on the recordings.

Defense lawyers questioned him in cross-examination for parts of nine days, trying to portray him as a savvy scam artist who managed to go from being pursued by the FBI to being paid $1,500 a week by the agency. They also questioned his role in the case.

There are some areas defense lawyers might not be allowed to probe regarding Bakalli.

Prosecutors have asked a judge to rule off limits questions about his 2005 arrest on charges of making terroristic threats, because the charges were dropped before he started working on the Fort Dix case, and a restraining order an ex-girlfriend got against him in 2006 - citing "aggressive conduct" - because he never contacted her again and the order was dropped. They also don't want questions about why one of his sisters, already in the United States, was granted asylum last year.

While the Egyptian-born Omar focused on Mohamad Shnewer, Albanian-born Bakalli got to know ethnic-Albanian brothers Dritan, Eljvir and Shain Duka, who were born in the former Yugoslavia.

Omar said he did not know Bakalli was also an informant until a few months ago, when they were both at an FBI office preparing for the trial.

But the two crossed paths during the 14-month investigation.

In one recording played for jurors, Bakalli asked Omar how stolen cars are shipped overseas.

Omar, who exported cars to Egypt, then explained how it happens. Bakalli then announced he was going to try shipping stolen cars overseas himself and laughed.

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