By MICHAEL BIESECKER, Associated Press
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Nevine Aly Elshiekh is a dog lover who teaches children with developmental disabilities. She is college-educated, well-respected by her neighbors and has no criminal record, not even a speeding ticket.
Family members and friends find it impossible to reconcile that woman with the zealot federal prosecutors say paid a hit man to behead three government informants from a recent terrorism trial.
Elshiekh, 46, was arrested two weeks ago when FBI agents raided the tidy West Raleigh ranch house she shares with her elderly parents. Her father, an Egyptian who moved his family to the U.S. more than 40 years ago, told The Associated Press the charges don't add up.
"We don't believe it," said Aly Elshiekh, 80, a retired professor at North Carolina State University. "She loves special-ed kids and has dedicated her life to helping kids with disabilities."
Also arrested was Shkumbin Sherifi, 21. Prosecutors said they paid $5,000 for the first hit to an FBI informant posing as a fictional hit man's assistant, who later showed the pair a faked photo showing the intended victim's severed head.
Sherifi is the younger brother of Hysen Sherifi, 27, who was sentenced last month to 45 years in prison for conspiring to attack the U.S. Marine base at Quantico and targets overseas.
Elshiekh, a family friend of one of the defendants, frequently made the two-hour trip to New Bern to attend the monthlong trial, which began shortly after the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. She scribbled careful notes during the testimony that led to Hysen Sherifi and two others being convicted of terrorism-related offenses. Three others pleaded guilty.
The case hinged largely on surveillance tapes made by confidential informants paid by the FBI.
Elshiekh was born in the United States, while Shkumbin Sherifi is a naturalized citizen. Like many from Raleigh's growing Muslim community, they insisted during trial that the defendants were innocent. There was no evidence presented that any of the accused men had agreed to participate in a specific plot.
Prosecutors say Hysen Sherifi exchanged letters with Elshiekh during trial and called her from jail. He also mailed her bracelets he made behind bars, according to the FBI.
Court records show Elshiekh divorced in 2010. Hysen Sherifi is married to a woman who lives in his native Kosovo.
The Sherifi family fled their homeland in 1999 during a brutal war between Serbs and ethnic Albanians. Shkumbin Sherifi lives at home with his parents and has taken classes at a nearby community college, though records show he was not enrolled at the time of his arrest.
State court records show his only prior brush with the law was in 2006, when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge for resisting a public officer.
He has said his brother was framed by federal agents.
"Muslims after the Sept. 11 attacks were targeted," Shkumbin Sherifi said in a video uploaded to YouTube the day of his arrest. "For Muslims, it's guilty until proven innocent."
Relatives have declined repeated interview requests. However, an older sister, Hylja Sherifi, testified at a Jan. 27 court hearing that Shkumbin is a primary caregiver to their father, who has end-stage lung cancer.
He also records rap songs in English and Albanian under the stage name Beme. His lyrics recount the sectarian violence in his homeland, which was eventually halted by an American-led bombing campaign against the Serbian military. Tens of thousands of Albanian Kosovars, including the Sherifis, ended up as refugees in the United States, Germany and other western nations.
"Bombs dropping 4 in the morning, tanks blowing, windows shaking, my momma's fainting," Shkumbin Sherifi raps to a heavy beat. "I was a kid. Hey, what could I do? ... Guerrilla warfare, yeah, we fight back. But NATO don't like that. We fight for each other. Y'all tried to murder my sisters and brothers. ... We're gonna to get revenge, before Judgment Day."
Prosecutors said Hysen Sherifi masterminded the plot to kill the witnesses from his jail cell. Authorities said that within days of his October conviction, he had asked another inmate if he knew anyone willing to kill people for money.