CHERRY HILL, N.J., May 9 — From the front porch of her two-story home on Mimosa Drive, Susan DeFrancesco looked out on the neighborhood she calls “a little United Nations.” Pointing from one house to the next, she said: “They’re Asian; that family’s from Poland. They’re from Canada. She’s from India. “
Living among those varied families for the past seven years were the Dukas, a three-generational clan of ethnic Albanians. Their Muslim religious garb, repeated minor run-ins with the law, and a brood of up to 20 children, grandchildren and other relatives made them unusual, but hardly unwelcome.
“You don’t want to single out a family because of where they’re from or what they believe,” DeFrancesco said.
On Tuesday morning, it suddenly looked different when three of the Duka brothers — young, bearded men in their 20s who had spent most of their lives in New Jersey — were among the six men indicted in an alleged terrorist plot to attack nearby Fort Dix with assault weapons.
For this bedroom community in the shadow of the Philadelphia skyline, they would become the accused jihadists next door — their arrest immediately shattering assumptions both here and beyond about who Islamic militants are.
Experts have warned that the next big terrorist threat will come from homegrown extremists, unaffiliated with al Qaeda but harboring resentments fostered by materials easily available from the Internet. In fact, the few who have shown themselves thus far prove that there is no stereotype.
Most of the men arrested Tuesday were European rather than Middle Eastern. They hail from one of the most pro-American and secular parts of the Muslim world — the ethnic Albanian regions of Macedonia, where gratitude for U.S. assistance in Kosovo during the 1990s still runs high.
They live in a garden-variety subdivision like those on the outskirts of cities from Washington, D.C., to Seattle — once-homogeneous communities now quickly becoming ethnically and racially mixed. Their children play soccer and video games with the neighbors’ kids; they hawked their roofing business at Friday prayers.
Had they not offered up an alleged jihadist video to be duplicated at a nearby Circuit City, they might never have been spotted.
That is precisely what has shaken this tree-lined suburb, where residents and leaders have prided themselves on tolerance and unity in the face of significant demographic shifts. Only last Sunday, leaders from the Islamic, Jewish and Roman Catholic faiths united with Mayor Bernie Platt on a empty patch of land in a moving groundbreaking ceremony for the community’s first mosque.
Farhat Biviji, 54, a founding member of the soon-to-be-built Anjuman-I-Fakhri Mosque in Cherry Hill, said: “My heart sank when we heard of these horrible men who claimed to be Muslims. They are testing us all. Testing our ability to retain that tolerance. I pray that they have not damaged the goodwill of our community.”
Perhaps they already have.
As a reporter approached the Duka house on Wednesday evening, two young mothers across the street yelled out, “Don’t go over there and talk to them — you don’t know what they’ll do.”
Then Zurata Duka, the mother of the three arrested brothers, proclaimed their innocence, asking why neighbors now run from her.
“My sons got caught saying nothing — there is no proof, no words from them in that affidavit, only the other three,” she said. Wearing a headscarf and long robe, she threw her arms out, gesturing at her sons’ pickup truck. “Look, it’s their roofing truck. They’re hard workers. If they were really terrorists, would they take that tape to Circuit City?”
A teenager who declined to give his name but said he was their younger brother declared: “I’m with my brothers 24-7. They never talked like terrorists.”
In their daily lives, according to dozens of interviews with neighbors, authorities and acquaintances, the six arrested men largely blended into the cultural patchwork of southern New Jersey, a region emblematic of the changing face of suburban America.
In the Cherry Hill School District, children now speak 62 native languages, compared with 53 in 1998. White children made up 92 percent of the school district in 1980 — compared with 76 percent today.
Within 10 miles of Cherry Hill, two mosques have sprung up over the past 15 years. One is the South Jersey Islamic Center in Palmyra, about 11 miles northwest of Cherry Hill, where the Duka brothers — whose brother-in-law, Mohamad Ibrahim Shmewer, was also arrested Tuesday — regularly worshiped on Friday evenings.
U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie said in an interview that it was inside the South Jersey Islamic Center that the Duka brothers met and recruited Serdar Tatar, 23, a Turkish-born legal U.S. resident raised in the south Jersey area.
Members of the mosque remember the Dukas differently. The eldest brother, Dritan, 28, was described as a friendly, outgoing man who would use the center to drum up customers for his roofing business, often telling jokes and heartily slapping backs. But as ethnic Albanians in a mosque dominated by Pakistani and Arabs, many of whom did not speak fluent English, conversations with the Dukas were often cursory.
“How are we supposed to know what they are thinking? The brothers came to the mosque for Friday prayers, but did not seem overly religious or interested in Muslim teachings,” said a 41-year-old Tunisian butcher and regular worshiper at the mosque who requested anonymity.
“The oldest brother was a funny guy, a joker. But he was not North African or Pakistani, and the language barriers often force us to talk among our own ethnic groups. But they certainly did not seem like people who hated this country.”
The Dukas were living in America illegally, having entered two decades ago on now-expired visas. In almost every way, they were products of typical U.S. suburban life. Shain, 26, and Eljvir, 24, attended Cherry Hill West High School and often played soccer in their front yard.
They were also no strangers to the police. Tatar and the Dukas were habitual offenders, stopped dozens of times a year for speeding, illegal passing and driving without a license. Dritan Duka pleaded guilty in 2000 to possession of drug paraphernalia and Shain Duka to possession of marijuana — low-level charges that at the time did not trigger immigration background checks.
Only one brother had a driver’s license, and only briefly. But they drove anyway and were ticketed regularly by Cherry Hill police — including four citations in one five-week period for Dritan Duka. The three had their driving privileges suspended — meaning they could not even apply for a license — 54 times in less than a decade.
William Kushina, a Cherry Hill Police Department spokesman, said the department could do nothing about serial unlicensed driving except continue to issue tickets and suspend privileges. “You can’t physically restrain a person from driving,” he said.
The six men are scheduled for a bail hearing on Friday. But for Cherry Hill, the question is whether the town will sustain the tolerance that is a hallmark of community pride.
Mike Levine, 38, who lives two doors from the Dukas, said they were good neighbors: They gave him vegetables from their garden and were unfailingly pleasant.
“They were your everyday Muslims,” he said. “The kids would be out front playing soccer. They seemed hardworking. I would have believed they were aliens before I’d think they were terrorists.”
“Now some people on the block are feeling guilty we didn’t pick up on something,” he continued. “I don’t want to worry what the people next door are doing behind closed doors. I don’t want to think like that, but maybe now I have to.”
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report from Washington.
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