Two New Jersey men who told an undercover police officer they wanted to join a recognized terrorist group and kill American soldiers in Somalia were arrested Sunday at Kennedy Airport as they tried to board separate flights, federal and New York City authorities said.
The arrests of Mohamed Alessa, 20, of North Bergen, N.J., and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, of Elmwood Park, N.J., provided another example of American citizens taking up the cause of international terrorist groups, authorities said. Alessa is of Jordanian-Palestinian background while Almonte is originally from the Dominican Republic, sources said.
The probe began in October 2006 when a civilian tipped off the FBI to the pair's habit of watching jihadist videos online, authorities said. In 2007, they traveled to Jordan and tried to join jihadist groups to fight against American forces abroad but no one wanted them, according to a criminal complaint. On their trip to Somalia, they planned to meet with Al-Shabaab, an extremist group connected to al-Qaida, authorities said.
The two men had planned the trip for several months, saving thousands of dollars, undergoing tactical training and test runs at paintball fields to condition themselves physically, and acquiring equipment and clothing they could use if they joined Al-Shabaab, officials said. Both had bragged about wanting to wage holy war against the United States, according to a criminal complaint.
Authorities presented no evidence that they had firearms training or contacts in Somalia.
According to court records, the pair listened to violent jihad tapes by Anwar al-Awlaki, of New Mexico, the American-born jihadist who was in contact with the Army psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Hassan, accused of killing soldiers last year in Fort Hood, Texas.
"During the course of this investigation, the subjects were confirmed to be committed individuals with operational intent," Michael B. Ward, special agent in charge in the Newark office of the FBI, said, adding that their travel plans to meet with Al-Shabaab prompted the arrests after a 3 1/2 year probe.
Alessa and Almonte face one charge each of conspiring to kill, maim, and kidnap persons outside the United States by joining Al-Shabaab, designated by the U.S. as a terrorist group in 2008, authorities said.
The two are expected to appear in court Monday at 11 a.m. The charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
They were planning to board separate flights to Egypt Sunday before moving on to Somalia, officials said.
The case against them appears to rely largely on taped conversations with an NYPD undercover officer who offered to help them. They are caught discussing their intentions to kill Americans in detail.
"A lot of people need to get killed, bro, swear to God," Alessa said in a Nov. 29, 2009, conversation, according to charging documents. "I have to get a . . . assault rifle and just kill anyone that even looks at me the wrong way, bro . . . my soul cannot rest until I shed blood. I wanna, like, be the world's known terrorist."
Officials said the two men were not planning an imminent attack in the New York-New Jersey area.
Investigators "remain concerned that once they reach their foreign destinations, they may be redirected against targets back home, as we've seen in the past," NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said in a statement. "We are also concerned that, should they remain undetected and fail in their foreign aspirations, that they might strike domestically, as was discussed as a possibility in this case."
Sen. Charles Schumer said the arrest of the men shows that America is dealing with an increasing number of homegrown terrorists, and that civilian tips are crucial to the fight against terror.
"This is a case of counterterrorism gone right," he said.
A neighbor of Alessa's, Helen Gonyou, said, "I just have to hope that if the case is true, they caught them before they could do bodily harm to anyone." Oct. 9, 2006, a tipster said every time Almonte and Alessa access the Internet "all they look for is all those terrorist videos about Islam holy war and where they kill U.S. soldiers and other terrible things . . . they keep saying that Americans are their enemies, that everybody other than Islamic followers are their enemies . . . and they all must be killed."
Shortly after that in 2006, Almonte was interviewed outside his house with Alessa hiding inside. An Almonte family member, otherwise unidentified but presumably a tipster, says Alessa told the family member that if the agents entered the house he would kill them.
In February of 2007, they traveled to Jordan to become jihadists but nobody would recruit them.
In May 23, 2010, Almonte went to a New Jersey book store looking for a Somali language phrase book. Almonte stated to the undercover officer "that if he found such a book he would memorize its contents and then dispose of it before traveling on June 5 ."