RALEIGH, N.C. – 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.
According to the FBI, Sherifi said he wanted three confidential informants from his trial beheaded. He also wanted a fourth man killed who he said had defrauded his family out of more than $30,000.
That inmate, cooperating with the FBI, gave Sherifi the phone number of an informant who would pretend to represent an assassin for hire, said to known by the street name Treetop.
After a Dec. 21 jailhouse visit with Hysen Sherifi, prosecutors said Elshiekh set up a meeting with the fictional hit man's assistant, an informant known as Miss D.
Prosecutors said Elshiekh met Miss D shortly after the jailhouse visit, providing names, addresses and other information about the targets.
On Jan. 2, Elshiekh again met with Miss D, according to the FBI. This time, the informant provided a photo of the first intended victim said to have been secretly taken by Treetop to ensure "the right man is killed." Elshiekh replied that she would find out, according to the FBI, which recorded the conversation.
Elshiekh took the photo to a jailhouse meeting with Hysen Sherifi before meeting Miss D a third time. According to the FBI, Elshiekh then gave the informant a tin box containing a set of dominoes and an envelope containing $750 cash.
According to the FBI, she also gave Miss D a note reading: "Pic confirmed. His brother is coming Sunday with the rest."
On Jan. 8, FBI agents tracked Shkumbin Sherifi to a meeting with the informant in a grocery store parking lot. He is accused of paying the remaining $4,250 toward the first killing while his mother waited nearby in a Honda minivan.
The cash came from the sale of gold jewelry and other items Elshiekh gave to Shkumbin Sherifi to pawn, according to the FBI.
On Jan. 22, prosecutors said Sherifi met with Miss D again, this time receiving fake photos that showed the blood-covered witness in a shallow grave and what appeared to be the man's severed head. An FBI agent testified Shkumbin Sherifi then met with his brother and was arrested as he left the jail, with the photos in his possession.
Sherifi's lawyer, James Payne, declined comment. At a court hearing last week, he suggested his client believed he was hiring a lawyer when he paid the FBI informant. Prosecutors countered that after Sherifi received the photos showing a mutilated corpse, he went to see his jailed brother instead of contacting police.
An FBI agent testified that after Elshiekh was arrested later that day, she waived her right to a lawyer and confessed she knew Hysen Sherifi was trying to have the witnesses killed.
Elshiekh's family has hired Charles Swift, a Seattle lawyer best known for defending Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Guantanamo Bay detainee who once served as Osama bin Laden's driver.
He said the government's evidence, if true, shows Elshiekh was nothing more than a courier for Hysen Sherifi.
"She was the victim of an evil, manipulative man," Swift said.
For the past nine years, Elshiekh has worked at Sterling Montessori Academy, a state-supported charter school in Morrisville. School officials declined repeated requests for comment and said only that Elshiekh has been placed on leave.
The organization's tax returns, which are public records, list Elshiekh's title as director of exceptional children and indicate she is among the school's highest-paid employees.
She has also served as a teacher at a religious school that is part of the Islamic Association of Raleigh, the city's largest mosque.
Imran Aukhil, a spokesman for the mosque, did not respond to requests for comment. Members of the congregation were among about 30 people who attended court hearings in Wilmington to show support.
Farris Barakat, a 21-year-old college student, said Elshiekh was his second-grade teacher at the mosque's school.
"Sister Nevine is an amazing person," Barakat said. "Nothing bad has ever come out of her."
On the quiet Raleigh street where Elshiekh lives with her parents, neighbors expressed disbelief she could be involved in anything nefarious.
Alan Harris, who lives across the road from the Elshiekhs, said he frequently saw Nevine walking her chocolate lab. Also a dog owner, Harris said they often spoke.
He said she wore western clothes and never discussed religion.
"She's a kind, caring person, always polite," Harris said. "From what I know of her, she is of good character. I hope she turns out to be an innocent party in all this."
In court Friday, Elshiekh wore a traditional scarf for Muslim women that covered her hair and neck. The shackles on her ankles clanked under a long, black dress.
Her father, a U.S. citizen since 1974, said he trusts the U.S. justice system.
"She will be treated fairly," Aly Elshiekh said. "If she did wrong, she will be judged."
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