Two North Jersey men, arrested Saturday just before they were to board a flight to Egypt, appeared today in U.S. federal court to face terror charges.
Federal authorities said the two were planning to travel on to Somalia, possibly by boat, in order to undergo terrorist training there with the end goal of killing U.S. troops abroad.
The suspects, Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20 and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, made their first court appearance in Newark federal court before U.S. Magistrate Madeline Cox Arleo.
Both were charged in a one-count indictment on charges of conspiracy to kill or maim persons outside the United States. The crime carries a maximum of life in prison and $250,000 fine.
A detention hearing will be held Thursday, but when advised of their rights, Alessa responded with a one word "yes" and Almonte with a one word "yeah."
Both were represented by the Federal Public Defenders office. Neither had to plead guilty or innocent in this first appearance.
US Attorney Paul Fishman noted that "at no time was the public in immediate danger from these defendants. The charges were filed before their bags were packed and the arrest teams were waiting at the airport before they arrived."
Upon leaving the courtroom, Alessa spotted his father and smiled as he was walked out still handcuffed. Just before exiting, he patted his heart with his manacled hands.
The two will be held until the hearing on Thursday. Assistant U.S. Attorney L. Judson Welle said both pose a "risk of flight and a danger to the community" if they were to be released on bail.
Alessa, of North Bergen, and Almonte, of Elmwood Park, are both American citizens, officials said. Alessa was born in the United States and is of Palestinian descent. Almonte is a naturalized citizen who was born in the Dominican Republic.
"We thought he was a normal kid. He wasn't a religious person. We didn't know anything about that," Pedro Almonte, father of Carlos, told the Star-Ledger outside his home Monday morning. "I can't stand that religion--everybody knows that," he said referring to Islamic fundamentalism.
Investigators said though the intentions of the two were sinister, their preparations were unsophisticated.
They lifted weights, bought military-style pants and water bottles, played violent video games and watched terrorist videos online.
They had no known connections to terrorist groups, and their planned trip to Somalia apparently amounted to a leap of faith that they'd be embraced by the jihadists.
The two were arrested trying to leave the country Saturday by law enforcement officials who had been tracking them for years.
Authorities were quick to stress the two posed no threat to the United States.
Authorities say they recorded Alessa and Almonte talking about attacking Americans. Alessa allegedly said he would outdo Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, last year.
"He's not better than me. I'll do twice what he did," Alessa was recorded saying, according to court documents.
In March, Alessa was recorded telling Almonte and an undercover officer with the New York Police Department that no one else they knew in New Jersey should be included in their plan to join al-Shabaab because only the three of them were "serious about their plan and were preparing for it." Court documents do not indicate that authorities had other targets in the investigation.
Law enforcement became aware of the men in the fall of 2006, after receiving a tip. Since then, during the lengthy investigation, the undercover officer recorded conversations with the men in which they spoke about jihad against Americans, court papers show.
"I leave this time. God willing, I never come back," authorities say Alessa told the officer last year. "Only way I would come back here is if I was in the land of jihad and the leader ordered me to come back here and do something here. Ah, I love that."
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.
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-Shabaab and all terrorists at large," said Sheik Abdirisaq Mohamed Qaylow, a spokesman for the Ministry of Information.
The men had traveled to Jordan three years ago and tried to get into Iraq, only to be rejected by jihadists, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said.
Investigators say they are among many U.S. terrorism suspects to have been inspired by two well-known U.S. citizens who have recruited terrorists through the Internet: Adam Gadahn, an al-Qaida spokesman in Pakistan, and Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical al-Qaida cleric hiding in Yemen who is believed to have helped inspire recent attacks including the Fort Hood shooting, the Times Square bombing attempt and the failed Christmas Day airline bombing.
Both have made public calls for smaller, single acts of terrorism and court documents show Alessa and Almonte appearing to be inspired by that idea.
Alessa lived with his parents in the densely populated suburb of North Bergen, said Hemant Shah, the family's landlord.
Alessa was attending Bergen County Community College, said Shah, who added that he often saw Alessa with a man who went by "Omar'' and a third man he believes may have been the undercover officer.
Officials said Alessa was transferred to North Bergen High School in 2004, and by February 2005 he was placed on home instruction because of "concerned for safety and well-being of other students and school personnel," following various incidents including threats against the school.
In Feb 2007 Alessa moved to Jordan, but in October of that year North Bergen High got a request for records transfer to the Islamic Center of East Orange.
Shah checked on Alessa's parents Sunday and said they didn't want to talk to reporters.
"His parents -- they were trying to put him in the right direction,'' said the landlord.
While court documents paint a picture of two men deeply committed to terrorism, their preparations were apparently scattershot. The only weapons they possessed were two folding knives Alessa said he would use to kill police if they tried to get near him: "I'm-a cut them in half with it, even if I die,'' he said, according to court documents.
Alessa and Almonte had planned their trip to Somalia for several months, saving thousands of dollars, 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.
Attending hearing was a man named Younus Mohammed, of Brooklyn, a self-described Islamic activist and advocate who was there to "express my solidarity" with the suspects.
He refused to condemn the suspects, citing American foreign policy in Israel, supporting Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, military bases in Mideast and other covert operations.
"That's what incites people like this, if they're guilty of the charges brought against them -- U. S. foreign policy," said Mohammed.
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