Two New Jersey men who wanted to attack Americans and fight alongside a terrorist group in Somalia were arrested at JFK airport as they tried to leave the U.S., law enforcement officials said today.
The two men, identified as 20-year-old Mohamed Hamoud Alessa and 26-year-old Carlos Eduardo Almonte, were arrested Saturday before they could board separate flights to Egypt and then continue on to Somalia.
There is no threat to the United States and the investigation is ongoing, law enforcement officials said.
"We can confirm that two individuals have been arrested at JFK airport in connection with an active law enforcement investigation. At this time, we can provide no further details because the investigation is ongoing. The arrests do not relate to any known immediate threat to the public or active plot against the United States," the U.S. Attorney's office said.
The men were believed to be joining up with al Shabaab, an Islamist group based in southern Somalia. Al Shabaab, whose full name means "Mujahideen Youth Movement," is reported to have had ties to al-Qaida since 2007.
Alessa, of North Bergen, and Almonte, of Elmwood Park, both American citizens, face charges of conspiring to kill, maim, and kidnap persons outside the United States by joining al-Shabab, a violent extremist group based in Somalia and connected to al-Qaida, authorities said. Al-Shabab was designated by the U.S. as a terrorist group in 2008.
Teams of state and federal law enforcement agents who have been investigating Alessa and Almonte since 2006 took them into custody, authorities said. They are scheduled to appear Monday in federal court in Newark.
The two men had planned their trip Somalia 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 when they joined al-Shabab in Somalia, officials said. Both had bragged about wanting to wage holy war against the United States both at home and internationally, according to a criminal complaint.
Their arrest comes amid growing focus on Al-Shabaab. Last year, federal authorities in Minnesota charged 14 men connected to a plot designed to entice young Americans to join the extremist group.
A March New York Times article described al Shabaab as one of Africa’s most fearsome Islamist groups, "terrorizing the Somali public, chopping off hands, stoning people to death and banning TV, music and even bras in their quest to turn Somalia into a seventh-century-style Islamic state."
Some experts say al Shabaab had been drawn increasingly close to al-Qaida, prompting concerns that it might spread into Kenya, Yemen and elsewhere.There is no threat to the United States and the investigation is ongoing, law enforcement officials said.
"Even when individuals plan to support terrorist activity abroad, we remain concerned that once they reach their foreign destinations they may be redirected against targets back home, as we’ve seen in the past," New York Police Comissioner Ray Kelly said today.
"I want to commend United States Attorney Paul J. Fishman and his assistants, along with the Newark JTTF and our other Federal and New Jersey partners who worked closely with the NYPD’s Intelligence Division in this important case," he said.
Somalia has welcomed the arrest of two men. "Foreign terrorists here are an obstacle to lasting peace in Somalia. So we welcome the move and we are calling on all governments to take such steps against al-Shabab and all terrorists at large," said Sheik Abdirisaq Mohamed Qaylow, a spokesman for the Ministry of Information.
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JONATHAN DIENST WNBC