Boasts by one of the terror suspects arrested over the weekend that he wanted to kill people in the United States if he couldn't do it overseas were a serious signal that officials were dealing with a time bomb, said a high-ranking NYPD official.
"We start doing killing here, if I can't do it over there," suspect Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, said to an undercover NYPD detective last November, according to a federal criminal complaint.
"I'm going to get locked up in the airport? Then you're gonna die here, then. That's how it is," said Alessa, telling the detective and co-defendant Carlos Eduardo Almonte what he would do if law enforcement tried to stop him in his trips overseas.
Those remarks were an indication that Alessa and Almonte, 24, both of New Jersey, were on their way to the final stages of radicalization as potential homegrown Islamic terrorists, according to Mitch Silber, head of the intelligence analysis section of the New York Police Department's intelligence division.
Silber said that analysis of months of reports by the undercover detective indicated the men seemed to be classic cases of Americans who became indoctrinated by radical Islam and were on the verge of acting.
"We could just see this thing materialize . . . in real time," recalled Silber. "These guys wanted to be jihadi heroes."
Almonte and Alessa, who were arraigned in federal court Monday, seemed to have unremarkable lives. They are not well-educated and had little financial means when they became exposed to radical Islamic ideologues - a similar profile to many other potential candidates, Silber said.
The two also watched jihadist videos - such as political rants of Alabama-born Omar Hammami, who is fighting in Somalia, where both men wanted to travel. That is another indication they were on the path to radical action, Silber said.
He said FBI and NYPD officials watched with growing concern as Alessa and Almonte, who were in touch with a number of like-minded people in New York and New Jersey, undertook what officials characterized as training to ready themselves for a paramilitary operation.
"Probably a good number of people never act," Silber said. "But the trick is to find out the ones going to act in this militarized stage."