By Peter Finn and Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010; 1:22 PM
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.
The increasing allure for some Americans of Somalia and destinations such as Pakistan and Yemen has alarmed U.S. officials, even though there is no evidence that the two men had 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 believed to be a cohort but who 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 tried to board separate flights to Egypt from where they planned to make their way to Somalia.
The two men appeared in U.S. District Court in Newark on Monday on charges of conspiring to kill, maim and kidnap people outside the United States. They told a judge they understood the charges against them and were ordered held pending a bond hearing on Thursday, officials said. Their lawyers did not immediately return telephone calls Monday afternoon. The men face up to life in prison if convicted.
Alessa and Almonte, 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 thousands of dollars to fund their travels.
Both men are American citizens. Alessa, who is of Palestinian descent, was born in the U.S. and 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 where they 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 the families of the men 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. A total of 14 U.S. citizens have been charged with terrorism offenses in federal courts this year, including Faisal Shahzad, the naturalized citizen from Pakistan charged in the failed Times Square car bombing. The investigation leading to Saturday's arrests also bears similarities to a 2009 case in which 14 men were charged in Minnesota with recruiting youths from U.S. communities to train with or fight on behalf of terrorism 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 the men 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 the so-called 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 home-grown radicals, U.S. officials point to the use of the Internet by Islamists who can communicate effectively in English to Westerners.
According to the criminal complaint, the two men listened to a number of American citizens who have used the Internet to trumpet al-Qaeda and violent jihad, including Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemen-based cleric linked to the Fort Hood shootings and the Christmas Day attempt to bomb a U.S. airliner, and Adam Gadahn, an al-Qaeda spokesman in Pakistan. Almonte kept audio recordings of Awlaki on his cell phone. And the New Jersey men also watched a video featuring Omar Hammani, an American-born fighter with al-Shabab, according to the complaint.
Al-Shabab, which means "youth,' emerged after the Ethiopian Army, with the backing of the United States, invaded Somalia in late 2006 and toppled an Islamic government.
The United States, which has designated al-Shabab a terrorist organization, has supported the fragile Somali transitional government with weapons, training, intelligence and logistical support.
Al-Shabab wants to topple the transitional government and install a Taliban-like Islamic emirate. And the group has expressed its allegiance to Al Qaeda. Al-Shabab is also believed to be harboring key al-Qaeda figures, including some involved in the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Both Osama Bin Laden and Awlaki have praised al-Shabab, providing the militia with legitimacy in the jihadist world.
Al-Shabab has sought to attract more foreigners to its camps through aggressive marketing on the Internet, according to U.S. intelligence officials. The majority of recruits appear to be Somali, although publicly available footage often shows "one or two non-Somalis, even Caucasians," according to an intelligence official.
There have been signs of what some in the intelligence community call "bleed out," meaning an Al Shabab role in attacks beyond Somalia. U.S. officials point to cross border attacks into Kenya, a key U.S. ally in the region; a suicide bombing in Yemen in March 2009; and a disrupted plot against a military facility in Australia.
Alessa and Almonte first came to the attention of U.S. law enforcement in 2006 when an acquaintance told the FBI that they had begun watching terrorist videos on the Internet and speaking of the U.S. and all non-Muslims as "enemies."
In 2007, they traveled to Jordan where they wanted to be recruited as mujaheddin to fight in Iraq, but they were rejected and "were upset at the individuals who failed to recruit them," according to the complaint.
In recent months they again stepped up their efforts to fight overseas, but were being monitored and recorded by the NYPD officer.
"Nah, I swear to God, bro. I wanna, like . . . my soul cannot rest until I shed blood," said Alessa in a recorded conversation with Almonte and the undercover officer in November of last year. "I wanna, like, be the world's known terrorist."
Asked why it took four years to arrest the two New Jersey men when the FBI learned that they were potential radicals in 2006, officials said it was initially unclear if the men were merely talking about jihad or planning action. They were arrested, officials said, because they were preparing to leave the country to fight overseas.
"When you take steps, it becomes more serious,'' said one federal investigator.
Staff writers Greg Miller, Sudarsan Raghavan in South Africa, and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.