A Brentwood man was arrested Friday by FBI agents for attempting to join a branch of al-Qaida in Yemen, as well as for conspiring with a previously arrested Babylon man to wage "violent jihad," officials said.
Marcos Alonso Zea, 25, pleaded not guilty in federal court in Central Islip to a five-count indictment accusing him of conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country, and attempting to provide material support to terrorists. The other three counts, to which Zea also pleaded not guilty, involved obstruction of justice and attempted obstruction of justice in an effort to conceal his terrorist activities, federal prosecutors said.
U.S. Magistrate Arlene Lindsay ordered Zea held without bail as a risk of flight and a danger to the community. Zea's attorney, Sally Butler, of Bayside, Queens, declined to comment after the hearing.
Federal prosecutors tied Zea's actions to that of Justin Kaliebe, 18, who lived in both Babylon and Bay Shore and pleaded guilty in June to similar charges. Kaliebe is awaiting sentencing.
"Despite being born and raised in the United States, Zea allegedly betrayed his country and attempted to travel to Yemen in order to join a terrorist organization and commit murder," Eastern District U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a statement. "When that plan was thwarted, Zea continued to support terrorism by assisting his co-conspirator's [Kaliebe's] effort to travel to Yemen to fight violent jihad."
The Zea and Kaliebe plot began in 2011, when they agreed to join the Yemeni terrorist group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, according to a court document filed by federal terrorism prosecutors John Durham, Seth DuCharme and Michael Canty.
Neither Zea nor Kaliebe knew that another member of their group was an undercover agent taping them, the prosecutor's document said.
In January 2012, Zea flew to London en route to Yemen, but was turned back to the United States by British authorities because he lacked a Yemeni visa, the document said.
"Even though he was prevented from traveling to Yemen . . . Zea continued to provide encouragement and financial assistance to Kaliebe, who was also plotting to travel to Yemen," the document continued.
Shortly before Kaliebe was to leave for Yemen, Zea told him, "I just hope my story . . . the event that happened to me will help you guys move forward, inspire you," the document said.
Kaliebe was arrested in January 2013 at Kennedy Airport, about to board a plane to Yemen.
After Kaliebe's arrest, Zea was interviewed by members of the federal Joint Terrorism Task Force, and, sensing that investigators were "closing in on him," prosecutors said, Zea asked an unnamed associate to "destroy evidence of his guilt" by erasing three of his computer hard drives.
The erasures were not totally successful, and when investigators seized the hard drives by search warrant, technicians found what the prosecutors termed "a variety of jihadist materials."
Zea lived with his parents. Interviewed at their home and after the court hearing, they both denied that their son was capable of terrorism.
"It's a lie," his mother, Sandra Zea, a native of Guatemala, said in Spanish. "He has a good heart."
Zea's father, Alvaro, a native of Colombia, said the couple had another son who also had not done anything wrong. That son had been an Air Force cadet in high school and was now serving in the Air Force at Fort Dix.
Sources familiar with the Zea investigation said authorities were aware that Marcos Zea's brother was in the Air Force, but they had no reason to suspect him of any untoward activities.
Zea's father said after the court hearing that while his son was raised as a Catholic, he told him several years ago that he had converted to Islam.
Zea said when he was surprised, his son told him that religious choice is "free for everyone."
Both Zea and Kaliebe attended the Masjid Darul Qur'an mosque in Bay Shore and knew each other there, said the mosque's imam, Muhammed A. Jabbar. But Jabbar said Friday that Zea had never indicated any terrorist tendencies. Jabbar previously has said the same thing about Kaliebe.
Zea's parents said the family has been under surveillance by the FBI for at least a year, with people in plain clothes photographing everyone coming in and out of the house, and that they were constantly being followed.
"They have been terrorizing us," the father said. "About the only place they haven't followed us is into the bathroom."
Sandra Zea said her son was interested in languages and other cultures, and had studied Arabic for about two months at Suffolk County Community College. He planned to be a teacher, she said.
"This is unjust, what they are doing," she said. "This boy is not involved in anything. He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke, he doesn't do drugs. He's a very healthy boy."