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New Jersey men arrested are latest from U.S. tied to terrorist groups

FILE - FBI special agent Richard J. Kolko answers questions in this March 25, 2010 file photo taken in New York. A newspaper reports that two New Jersey men who intended to kill American troops have been arrested at a New York City airport before boarding flights on their way to join a jihadist group in Somalia Saturday June 5, 2010. Kolko has confirmed that two men were arrested at the airport. (AP Photo/Rick Maiman, File)
FILE - FBI special agent Richard J. Kolko answers questions in this March 25, 2010 file photo taken in New York. A newspaper reports that two New Jersey men who intended to kill American troops have been arrested at a New York City airport before boarding flights on their way to join a jihadist group in Somalia Saturday June 5, 2010. Kolko has confirmed that two men were arrested at the airport. (AP Photo/Rick Maiman, File) (Rick Maiman - AP)

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By Peter Finn and Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010

The two New Jersey men who were arrested late Saturday for allegedly planning to fight in Somalia with al-Shabab, an extremist group allied with al-Qaeda, are only the latest in a stream of American recruits attracted to violent jihad in the failed African state.

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The increasing allure for some Americans of destinations such as Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen has alarmed U.S. officials, though no evidence has surfaced that the two men planned any immediate attacks in the United States or overseas. Officials fear that radicalized Americans, even if they start off as naive as the two New Jersey aspirants appeared to be, could return home battle-hardened and determined to commit terrorist acts on American soil.

Indeed, one of the two New Jersey men, who were often in the company of a man they thought to be a cohort but was in fact a wired undercover officer with the New York City Police Department, spoke of "doing killing here, if I can't do it over there," according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court in New Jersey.

Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, were arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York as they attempted to board separate flights to Egypt, from where they planned to make their way to Somalia.

The two men, who had been under surveillance for four years, trained for their departure by simulating combat at paintball facilities and using "first-person shooter" computer software, as well as working out and hiking through snow, according to the criminal complaint. They bought combat apparel, hydration systems, night-vision binoculars and tactical-brand flashlights, and saved up thousands of dollars to fund their travels.

Both men are U.S. citizens. Alessa, who is of Palestinian descent, was born in the United States. Almonte, who was born in the Dominican Republic, is a naturalized citizen, according to U.S. and New York officials.

Alessa and Almonte are scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in New Jersey on Monday and are expected to face charges of conspiring to kill, maim and kidnap persons outside the United States. They face life in prison if convicted.

Attempts to reach their families by phone were unsuccessful, but a man who described himself as Almonte's father told the Associated Press, "I'm very confused by all this." An unidentified member of Almonte's family cooperated with investigators as early as 2006, according to the complaint.

The arrests reinforced fears of homegrown terrorism that have been building in recent months. Fourteen U.S. citizens have been charged with terrorism offenses in federal courts this year, including Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized citizen from Pakistan charged in a failed Times Square car bombing. The investigation leading to Saturday's arrests bears similarities to a 2009 case in which 14 men in Minnesota were charged with recruiting American youths to train with or fight on behalf of terrorist groups in Somalia.

"There's been a whole slew of disaffected youth in the United States willing to become radicalized and take action, either overseas or here," one federal law enforcement official said. "Several years ago, people were saying this is a problem primarily limited to Europe. But clearly, we're seeing more of it here."

The allegation that Alessa and Almonte trained by playing paintball was similar to the case of 11 Muslim men convicted in federal court in Alexandria after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in what is called the Virginia jihad network case. Some of those men also played paintball in the woods to prepare for jihad, prosecutors said.

Attempting to explain the rise in homegrown radicals, U.S. officials point to the use of the Internet by Islamists who can communicate effectively in English to Westerners.


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