NEWARK, N.J. – Two New Jersey men accused of trying to join a terrorist group in Somalia intended to commit acts of violence even though their plans appeared haphazard, a federal prosecutor said Monday.
“Sophistication is not a measure of danger,” U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said. “Their intentions were described pretty clearly. They were watching certain videos and interested in what certain people were saying and advocating.”
Mohamed Mahmood Alessa and Carlos Eduardo Almonte made their first court appearance Monday in Newark.
Alessa, 20, and Almonte, 24, were arrested Saturday night at New York’s Kennedy Airport as they prepared to fly to Egypt and then to Somalia, authorities said. They are charged with conspiring to kill, maim and kidnap persons outside the United States by joining al-Shabab, a group designated by the U.S. in 2008 as a terrorist organization.
Alessa and Almonte appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Madeline Cox Arleo on Monday with their hands and feet shackled. Both have dark curly hair and beards. Alessa had several cuts and bruises on his forehead.
The men spoke only to affirm that they understood the charge against them. Two of Alessa’s family members and court-appointed attorneys for both men declined to comment after the hearing.
Alessa and Almonte will be held without bail pending a detention hearing on Thursday. If convicted, they could face life in prison.
Investigators say the two Muslim men intended to head to Somalia to seek terror training from al-Qaida-affiliated jihadists and to unleash attacks against fellow Americans.
But their preparations apparently were far from sophisticated. They lifted weights, bought military-style pants, tried paintball, played violent video games and watched terrorist videos online, authorities said. The only weapons they possessed were two folding knives.
The men had no contact with Somali terrorists, according to officials and court documents, and their planned trip to Somalia amounted to a leap of faith that they’d be accepted by a terrorist group. Fishman would not say Monday whether they had made any actual contacts with al-Shabab.
Law enforcement became aware of the men in the fall of 2006, when the FBI received an anonymous tip through its website, and some unidentified family members cooperated with investigators, according to a criminal complaint.