NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — On the presidential campaign trail, Gov. Chris Christie is touting his prosecutions of terrorists while he was New Jersey's U.S. attorney, renewing questions about the government's methods in two highly publicized cases.
"We prosecuted two of the biggest terrorism cases in the world," Christie said during a Dec. 15 GOP debate, referring to two prosecutions that culminated in convictions and long prison sentences. "I've fought terrorists and won."
The two cases were praised as examples of American law enforcement's post-9/11 focus on stopping potential attacks before they occurred. But critics claimed the alleged plotters wouldn't have planned to commit any crimes had they not been targeted by informants who repeatedly urged them to action.
A look at the two cases:
"ENERGIZER BUNNY OF ARMS TRAFFICKERS"
DEFENDANT: Hemant Lakhani, a 68-year-old London-based merchant.
THE ACCUSATIONS: Lakhani was caught on video in a hotel room near Newark Liberty International Airport talking with informant Mohammed Rehman about how shoulder-fired missiles Lakhani said he could get could be used to shoot down American commercial airplanes. The missile and the seller used in the sting were fakes.
WHAT PROSECUTORS SAID: At the time of his arrest, authorities called him a "significant international arms dealer." At trial, a prosecutor told jurors Lakhani "made trip after trip" around the world to try and set up deal. They said he was "like the Energizer Bunny of arms traffickers. He just kept going and going."
WHAT THE DEFENSE SAID: Lakhani's defense that he was a victim of entrapment. He was cast by his lawyer as a hapless wannabe who was seeking attention and riches when he was approached by an informant claiming to represent a militant group. "There was no buyer, there was no seller and there was no missile," Lakhani told The Associated Press after his conviction.
THE OUTCOME: Lakhani was convicted in 2005 of attempting to provide material support to terrorists, money laundering and other crimes and sentenced to 47 years. Afterward, Christie told reporters, "I don't know how anyone can say the people of the state of New Jersey are not safer without Hemant Lakhani trotting around the globe trying to broker arms deals." Lakhani died in prison in 2013 still proclaiming his innocence in dozens of hand-written letters sent to the court.
"A PLATOON TO TAKE ON AN ARMY"
THE DEFENDANTS: Five foreign-born Muslims in their 20s living in Philadelphia and its southern New Jersey suburbs.
THE ACCUSATIONS: The men were charged in 2007 with conspiring to kill U.S. military personnel at New Jersey's Fort Dix. (A sixth was charged with weapons offenses.) Authorities had been alerted initially after a store clerk saw a video of the men shooting guns at a firing range and yelling "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great." Jurors heard hours of secretly recorded audio that included one defendant saying how they could "kill at least 100 soldiers by using rocket-propelled grenades." They also heard evidence that another defendant told a second informant: "We are good the way we are. We are not going to kill anyone."
WHAT PROSECUTORS SAID: Shortly after their arrest, Christie told The Associated Press that the men "were in the last stage of planning" and "very close to moving on this." An FBI agent said the group "was forming a platoon to take on an army." After the trial, prosecutors acknowledged that the group was probably months away from an attack and didn't have a specific plan.
WHAT THE DEFENSE SAID: Defense attorneys claimed the men may have made anti-American statements but had no plans to attack anything until informant Mahmoud Omar infiltrated the group and spent months goading and manipulating them. Defense attorneys Rocco Cipparone and Richard Sparaco both said recently that the evidence showed Omar, a convicted felon, pushing the plot forward when the defendants seemed hesitant or uninterested. Cipparone noted that Omar was receiving $1,500 per month from the government plus the use of a $1,400-per-month apartment.
THE OUTCOME: The five Fort Dix defendants — brothers Shain, Dritan and Eljvir Duka, Serdar Tatar and Mohamad Shnewer — were convicted in December 2008 of conspiring to kill U.S. military personnel but acquitted of attempted murder charges. Tatar received 33 years; the other four received life sentences.
FOR COMPARISON: Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, pointed out that the Fort Dix plotters received longer sentences than four men who were caught going to plant bombs — fakes provided by a government informant — at New York City synagogues in 2009. They received similar sentences to Faisal Shahzad, who left a bomb that failed to explode in an SUV in Times Square in 2010, and Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a commercial airliner with explosives hidden in his shoes. "Is that what you really want your criminal justice system to look like?" Greenberg asked. "You can say somebody who's an accused terrorist should go away for a really long time, no matter what they did. But when you're thinking about a balanced judicial system, those cases don't fit that narrative."
WHAT'S NEXT: The Duka brothers are scheduled to be in court on Wednesday to argue that their trial attorneys coerced them not to testify. The attorneys deny the brothers' claims.
This story has been corrected to show the name of the charge against Lakhani was providing material support to terrorists, not to extremists.