Two N.J. men arrested for allegedly trying to join Somali terrorists

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.

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