WASHINGTON – Two U.S. citizens were arrested at JFK International Airport as they tried to leave the country to join an Islamic terrorist group in Somalia and plot attacks against American troops abroad, authorities said Sunday.
The men – Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, of North Bergen, N.J., and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, of Elmwood Park, N.J. – were arrested Saturday night and charged with conspiring to kill, maim and kidnap persons outside the United States, according to a complaint by the U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey.
It was unclear how they became radicalized. But according to the 17-page criminal complaint, they periodically listened to Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born, Yemen-based Islamic cleric who preaches jihad and is suspected of inspiring the Fort Hood, Texas, shootings and the failed Christmas Day plot to bomb an airplane.
The complaint, which capped a nearly four-year investigation during which officials tracked the young men with the help of an undercover New York Police Department agent, does not suggest Alessa and Almonte planned any attacks in the United States. However, the defendants allegedly said they would be willing to do so.
“They only fear you when you have a gun and … when you take their head and … behead it on camera. … We’ll start doing killing here if I can’t do it over there,” Alessa allegedly told Almonte and the undercover agent last November, the complaint says.
Nor is it clear whether the pair had any specific contact with overseas terrorist networks. Almonte complained earlier this year to the undercover officer that he and Alessa had tried unsuccessfully to be recruited as mujahedeen fighters during a 2007 trip to Jordan.
The arrests mark the second time in a month that U.S. citizens have been identified as would-be terrorists, underscoring fears by counterterrorism officials about the threat from American, rather than foreign, attackers.
In May, authorities captured 30-year-old Faisal Shahzad after the Pakistani-American allegedly tried to detonate a car bomb in New York’s Times Square, reportedly with guidance from al-Qaida.
“The radicalization of our youth, like gang recruitment, is real and continues to pose concerns,” New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness Director Charles B. McKenna said in a statement. “We must be vigilant in stopping our young men and women from being co-opted and trained to do us harm.”
Alessa and Almonte allegedly were planning to join the radical Somali group al-Shabaab, which has been linked to extremist violence in East Africa and is believed to be affiliated with al-Qaida.
Neither Alessa nor Almonte are Somali. Alessa was born in the United States to Palestinian and Jordanian parents. Almonte is a naturalized citizen who was born in the Dominican Republic.
Federal and local law enforcement officials began tracking Alessa and Almonte in October 2006 after receiving a tip through the FBI’s website that the two were constantly viewing terrorist videos on the Internet.
A law enforcement source, asking not to be identified because the investigation is continuing, said the tip came from a relative.
Two and a half months later, one of Almonte’s family members told police that the two had watched another video about suicide vest bombs, according to the complaint.
As law enforcement officials stepped up their surveillance, they saw Almonte and Alessa intensify preparations for what appeared to be a violent if ill-defined mission, according to the criminal complaint.
Both FBI and New York City police undercover agents managed to get close to the men and win their confidence without arousing suspicion, said the law enforcement source. The two even allowed the FBI to search their belongings.
“They weren’t very clever,” the source said.
In several recorded conversations quoted in the complaint, they spoke passionately and graphically about their desire to engage in terrorism.
“My soul cannot rest until I shed blood. I wanna, like, be the world’s known terrorist,” Almonte told the NYPD undercover agent in 2009, according to the complaint.
In the same conversation, Almonte bragged that he would outdo Maj. Nidal Hasan, the U.S. Army psychologist accused of killing 13 people and wounding dozens at Ft. Hood, Texas, in November. “I’ll do twice what he did,” Almonte allegedly said.
Federal and local authorities decided they had to intervene when Almonte and Alessa purchased separate plane tickets to Egypt with plans to continue on to Somalia. On April 25, authorities said, Almonte said American troops would soon be in Somalia, which he said was good because it would be more gratifying than killing Africans.
The defendants are expected to appear in federal court today in Newark, N.J.