Reporting from Washington and New Jersey — Two U.S. citizens were arrested at a New York 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 at John F. Kennedy International Airport and charged with conspiring to kill, maim and kidnap people 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, authorities said. But according to a 17-page criminal complaint, they periodically listened to Anwar Awlaki, a U.S.-born, Yemen-based Islamic cleric who preaches jihad and is suspected of inspiring the accused Ft. Hood shooter and the failed Christmas Day airline plot.
The complaint, which capped a nearly four-year investigation during which officials tracked the young men with the help of an undercover agent with the New York Police Department, does not suggest Alessa and Almonte planned any attacks in the United States. However, the complaint said the defendants had 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 in November, the complaint said.
It is not clear whether the pair had any specific contact with overseas terrorist networks. Authorities said Almonte complained this year to the undercover officer that he and Alessa had tried unsuccessfully to be recruited as mujahedin fighters during a 2007 trip to Jordan.
The arrests mark the second time in a month that U.S. citizens have been accused of being would-be terrorists, underscoring fears by counter-terrorism officials about the threat from American, rather than foreign, attackers.
In May, authorities captured 30-year-old Faisal Shahzad after they said the Pakistani American tried to detonate a car bomb in New York's Times Square, reportedly with guidance from Al Qaeda.
"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."
Authorities said Alessa and Almonte were planning to join the radical Somali group Shabab, which has been linked to extremist violence in East Africa and is believed to be affiliated with Al Qaeda.
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.
The two live about 10 miles apart in ethnically diverse communities in northern New Jersey, within commuting distance of Manhattan.
In North Bergen, the Alessa family runs a business delivering soda and other goods, said Julie Fernandez, a pharmacist assistant who has lived across the street since the Alessas moved in about a dozen years ago.
Fernandez said a young Alessa, then about 11, created a ruckus shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when he hung a Palestinian flag on the balcony of the family's second-floor apartment. His parents apparently were away.
The neighbors were furious.
"Everybody else had American flags out front," she said. "One of the neighbors made him take it down."
The Almonte family lives in a two-story, tan-colored home in Elmwood Park, where neighbors said the father had worked several jobs, including driving a school bus.
"Carlos was a very nice kid and played with all the kids on the street growing up," said Anne Marie Rizzo, 54, who lives across the street a few houses down from the Almontes. "I can't imagine what went wrong."
Authorities said 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 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.
About two months later, one of Almonte's family members told police that the two had watched another video about suicide vest bombs, the complaint said.
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, the complaint said.
Both FBI and New York police undercover agents managed to get close to the men and win their confidence without arousing suspicion, the law enforcement source said. The two even allowed the FBI to search their belongings.
"They weren't very clever," the source said.