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New Jersey men arraigned on terrorism charges

Their case marks the third time in six months that terrorism suspects were tripped up by their own ineptness, authorities say. But officials warn that such homegrown threats shouldn't be dismissed.

June 08, 2010|By Richard A. Serrano, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Shortly after two New Jersey men were arraigned Monday on terrorism-related charges in Newark, N.J., Paul J. Fishman paused briefly on the steps of U.S. District Court. The top federal prosecutor in the state conceded that once again authorities had been lucky — this time with a pair of bumblers who allegedly pledged to wage jihad in Somalia but were being shadowed for years by FBI agents.

Indeed, it marked the third time in six months that terrorism suspects were tripped up by their own ineptness.

But, Fishman said, "sophistication is not necessarily a measure of danger." And, he warned, "we would be remiss if we didn't pay attention to anyone who has the intention to do what these folks are alleged to have done."

Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, also known as Omar, were arrested Saturday night at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, hoping, authorities say, to join an extremist group in Somalia linked to Al Qaeda.

But they never had a chance. For 31/2 years, FBI agents followed their tiny cell in the New Jersey suburbs, sending in an undercover operative who even won their approval to search their computer. It turned up documents promoting Osama bin Laden and violent jihad, authorities say.

And still, the FBI said, the young men continued to boast and train and arm themselves for war.

Their cluelessness followed what happened to Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani who became a U.S. citizen and is accused of trying to blow up his SUV in New York's Times Square on May 1. Not only did the poorly constructed bomb fail to go off, Shahzad left his keys inside and the vehicle registration number. FBI agents beat a path to his door.

Four months earlier, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian flying into Detroit on Christmas Day, fumbled with explosives hidden in his underwear, authorities say. But he too could not get them to detonate and was hauled away as a failed terrorist suspect.

For weeks now federal authorities have been warning of a stepped up pace of attempted terrorist attacks, and a rise in homegrown terrorists. The common fear is that eventually the string of luck may run out, and that someday someone somewhere will pull it off.

Underscoring the homegrown threat, the State Department on Monday said about 12 Americans have been arrested in Yemen, possibly as part of a joint U.S.-Yemeni counter-terrorism operation. Philip J. Crowley, the chief State Department spokesman, said U.S. officials lacked details and were seeking more information on the apprehensions.

As for the two arrested at JFK, "these are the dumbest terrorists in the world," Michael Wildes, a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn and a former mayor in New Jersey, said in an interview Monday. "But by their lack of grace and action, they were caught." [For the record: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Wildes was now a mayor.]

Chris Leibig, a longtime criminal defense attorney in Arlington, Va., said many would-be terrorists actually were "immature fools" who early in adulthood become caught up in radical ideology, far different than "someone who grows up in Pakistan and has been taught this whole philosophy since they were 4."

Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman, a former CIA scholar-in-residence, said it was only the incompetence of the suspected perpetrators that averted catastrophe in the Christmas Day and Times Square attempts. "While it is easy to dismiss as amateurish many of these plots, incidents and failed attacks, we do so at our peril," he told a House panel last month.

Alessa and Almonte said little during the court arraignment Monday. They acknowledged the charges against them. Their hands and feet shackled, they returned to jail to await a bail hearing Thursday. If convicted, they face a maximum term of life in prison.

They are charged in a federal complaint with attempting to "kill, maim and kidnap persons outside the United States." But in comments captured in wiretaps by a secret informant, they also were willing to return to this country and carry out terrorism attacks as well, the complaint said.

According to the charges, they knew so little about Somalia that Almonte went to a store in search of a book with Somali language phrases. To prepare, he viewed an Internet video titled "First Stop Addis" about Somalia jihadists in training, the complaint said.

The complaint also said Alessa would brandish a large knife and boast to family members that he would kill U.S. agents. He openly spoke of Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, accused of killing 13 people at Ft. Hood, Texas, last fall, saying, "He's not better than me. I'll do twice that," according to the complaint.

Todd M. Rosenblum, deputy undersecretary for intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security, spoke about a diversified homegrown threat in remarks Friday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"The number and pace of attempted attacks against the United States over the past nine months have surpassed the number of attempts during any other previous one-year period, and we believe Al Qaeda, its terrorist affiliates and radicalized individuals will try to conduct operations in the United States with increased frequency," he said.

richard.serrano@latimes.com

Ken Dilanian of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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