With their curly hair, beards and gray button-down shirts, Mohamed Alessa and Carlos Almonte looked almost identical when they made their first appearance in federal court here Monday. The two New Jersey men were arrested over the weekend for allegedly planning to wage jihad and kill Americans in Somalia, and both now face the possibility of life in prison.
Alessa and Almonte were arrested at New York's JFK airport Saturday night as they allegedly attempted to board a flight to Egypt on their way to link up with a Somalia-based terror group.
"The charges were filed before their bags were packed and the arrest teams were waiting at the airport before they arrived," said Paul Fishman, US Attorney for the District of New Jersey.
Magistrate Judge Madeline Arleo assigned each man a lawyer and ordered Alessa and Almonte detained until their next court date Thursday.
Alessa appeared to have a bruise on the side of his face. His father, who sat in the spectator's gallery, indicated to reporters his son had been hit. Authorities said both men had resisted arrest. Alessa appeared to recognize the presence of his parents. As he was led from court he smiled at them and tapped his heart.
Prosecutors said family played a role in identifying Alessa and Almonte's alleged militancy. In 2006 a relative told law enforcement the defendants watched internet videos of suicide bombings.
"They wanted to go join a foreign terrorist organization called al-Shabaab," Fishman said. "They had finally purchased plane tickets and were on their way out of the country."
There's nothing in the criminal complaint to suggest the men had scheduled meetings with known militants, nor is it alleged they possessed the equipment, desire or knowledge to carry out a terror plot on their own.
"Sophistication is not necessarily a measure of danger," said Fishman.
The arrests, and raids by the FBI and NYPD on homes in New Jersey, were the latest developments in an ongoing terror probe dubbed "Arabian Knights" that began in 2006 and used an undercover New York City police officer to infiltrate the group. The officer kept tabs on the men arrested right up until they purchased their airline tickets for separate flights to Egypt.
"As in gun trafficking and narcotics investigations, the NYPD cannot acknowledge publicly individual undercover police officers who have infiltrated suspects. Nonetheless, we are indebted to them," New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said.
In a joint statement Sunday, federal and local law enforcement officials laid out details on the arrests on charges of conspiring to kill, maim, and kidnap persons outside the United States.
"The defendants -- United States citizens Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, of North Bergen, New Jersey, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, of Elmwood Park, New Jersey -- were taken into custody at JFK International Airport in New York on Saturday, where they intended to take separate flights to Egypt on their way to Somalia to join designated foreign terrorist organization Al-Shabaab and wage violent jihad," the statement said. "Waiting for the defendants at the airport was a law enforcement team holding arrest warrants issued by the United States District Court in Newark."
Alessa was born in the United States of Palestinian and Jordanian parents. Almonte was born in the Dominican Republic but is a naturalized U.S. citizen.