Two Arrested at Kennedy Airport on Terror Charges
By WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM
Copyright by The New York Times
Published: June 6, 2010
Two New Jersey men who were bound for Somalia with the stated intention of joining an Islamic extremist group to kill American troops were arrested at Kennedy International Airport late Saturday, federal and local authorities said on Sunday.
The men, Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, were seeking to join Al Shabab, a group that claims ideological kinship with Al Qaeda and was thought to have provided a haven to Qaeda operatives wanted for bombings of United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, prosecutors said in court papers.
The men were taken into custody as they prepared to take separate flights to Egypt, the first leg of their journey to Somalia to join Al Shabab, according to federal and local officials.
The men have been under scrutiny by the F.B.I. since 2006, after the agency received a tip on its Web site. Beginning last year, an undercover officer from the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division recorded many meetings and conversations with them, during which they discussed their plans, according to a criminal complaint.
The emergence of homegrown terrorists — highlighted by the recent arrest of Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized United States citizen born in Pakistan who attempted to set off a car bomb in Times Square, and the arrest of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an American-born Muslim and an Army psychiatrist charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas — has alarmed officials.
And though the picture that emerged of Mr. Alessa and Mr. Almonte from the criminal complaint raised questions as to whether they would have been capable of mounting a sophisticated attack on their own, their arrests were nonetheless seen as a cause for concern.
“Even when individuals plan to support terrorist activity abroad, we remain concerned that once they reach their foreign destinations they may be redirected against targets back home, as we’ve seen in the past,” Raymond W. Kelly, the New York police commissioner, said in the news release. “We are also concerned that should they remain undetected and fail in their foreign aspirations that they might strike domestically, as was discussed as a possibility in this case.”
Mr. Almonte, of Elmwood Park, N.J., and Mr. Alessa, of North Bergen, N.J., were charged with conspiring to kill, maim and kidnap people outside the United States. They were expected to be arraigned on Monday in federal court in Newark. If convicted, they face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Their response to the charges was unclear Sunday evening. It was not known whether either man had a lawyer.
The arrests were announced in a news release issued by the office of the United States attorney for New Jersey, Paul J. Fishman, along with the F.B.I., the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness and the New York Police Department. The arrests were first reported early Sunday in The Star-Ledger of Newark.
The suspects, both United States citizens, physically conditioned themselves, engaged in paintball and tactical training, saved thousands of dollars for their trip, and acquired military gear and apparel, according to the complaint. They talked about what they said was their obligation to wage violent jihad, and at times expressed a willingness to commit acts of violence in the United States, the complaint said.
Last Nov. 29, for example, the complaint said that Mr. Alessa told Mr. Almonte and the undercover officer: “They only fear you when you have a gun and when you — when you start killing them, and when you — when you take their head, and you go like this, and you behead it on camera.” He added: “We’ll start doing killing here, if I can’t do it over there.” Mr. Alessa used the Arabic words for gun and killing, according to the complaint.
The next day, said the complaint, he told the officer: “I leave this time, God willing, I never come back. I’ll never see this crap hole. Only way I would come back here is if I was in the land of jihad and the leader ordered me to come back here and do something here. Ah, I love that.”
The complaint said that more recently, on April 25, Mr. Almonte said there would soon be United States troops in Somalia — which he called a good development because it would not be as gratifying to kill only Africans.
A law enforcement official said the undercover officer who made the secret recordings was in his 20s and was a five-year police veteran of Egyptian descent.
The men also watched and played for the undercover officer video and audio recordings that promoted violent jihad, including lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni cleric who is suspected of using the Internet to incite Muslims in the West to violence, and videos featuring attacks by Al Shabab and other terrorist groups, the complaint said.
According to a senior law enforcement official in Washington, the two young men had no specific contacts in Somalia or elsewhere in the region. “It seems they were planning to take things as they went once they got there,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the continuing investigation.
The planned trip to Egypt would not have been the first that the two young men had taken in an effort to wage violent jihad, according to the sworn complaint by Samuel P. Robinson, an F.B.I. agent assigned to the Newark office. Mr. Almonte and Mr. Alessa traveled to Jordan in early 2007, and Mr. Almonte told the undercover that they had sought unsuccessfully to become mujahedeen, or freedom-fighters, and were “upset with the individuals who failed to recruit them,” the complaint said.
A short time after the F.B.I. received the tip about the two men, investigators interviewed Mr. Almonte in front of his home, according to the complaint. Several weeks later, one of his family members told F.B.I. agents that during that interview of Mr. Almonte, Mr. Alessa was hiding inside the house with a large knife and told the relative that he would kill the agents if they came inside, the complaint said.
A law enforcement official said that Mr. Almonte, a naturalized United States citizen, was born in the Dominican Republic, and Mr. Alessa was born in the United States to Palestinian and Jordanian parents.
Mr. Alessa had lived with his parents in a second-floor apartment on 81st Street in North Bergen for at least 17 years, according to neighbors. His mother, Nadia, was a teacher and his father, Mahmood, worked at a convenience store for a time, neighbors said.
As a child, Mr. Alessa played in the backyard with his landlord’s children. A grade-school friend who lived up the street, Marcos Regato, would come over to the Alessas’ house to play video games and Pokemon. The adults on Mr. Alessa’s street saw him a quiet, somewhat introverted young man, while some of his peers started seeing signs of trouble as he became a teenager. Mr. Regato said Mr. Alessa had fought frequently with his father and had run away from home several times. In high school, he spent less time with his friends on the block, running with a gang of boys who called themselves the P.L.O. or the Arabian Knights.
Dorothy Miolovic, 61, who lives next door to the Almontes, recalled a conversation with Mr. Almonte’s father, Pedro Almonte, about six years ago, as he was cutting grass. After some pleasantries, he expressed exasperation with Carlos. “He was saying he didn’t know what to do with his son,” she said. “He converted to Muslim and he was very upset about it.”
Bronislawa Huffman, 72, a neighbor who lives across the street from the Almontes, said news of the arrest came as a shock. “They are very quiet people; we never hear something wrong,” she said. “The news today, it kills everyone.”
Reporting was contributed by Kareem Fahim and Karen Zraick from New Jersey; Al Baker and Sam Dolnick from New York; and Eric Schmitt from Washington.