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.
Kelly said the two had traveled to Jordan in 2007 and tried to get into Iraq, but were ejected by Jordan.
Officials noted that there was no immediate threat from the suspects.
However, Kelly noted, "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."
Alleged Suspect Statement: 'We'll Start Doing Killing'
According to the federal complaint, the case began in October 2006 with a tip to the FBI. An NYPD Intelligence Division undercover officer was enlisted and recorded "numerous meetings and conversations with them, during which the defendants discussed and prepared to carry out their plan."
The preparations included physical conditioning, engaging in paintball games "and other tactical training," as well as gathering thousands of dollars and "acquiring military gear and apparel for use overseas," the complaint said.
Authorities cited a statement by one of the defendants to his colleague and the undercover New York City detective as an example of the defendants' willingness to commit violence in the United States.
They claimed in the federal complaint that Alessa said, "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 ... We'll start doing killing here, if I can't do it over there."
Officials italicized certain words in the alleged statement to indicate they were translated.
The next day, Alessa allegedly told the undercover detective, "I leave this time [and], 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 noted that Almonte saw the possibility of American troops in Somalia as an opportunity to kill not only Africans but U.S. soldiers, the complaint claimed.
As in many recent cases, authorities say, the defendants also watched and played numerous video and audio recordings that promoted violent jihad, including lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki, the charismatic American whose hate speech has inspired numerous recent terror attempts in the United States.
U.S. Attorney Fishman said, "When Alessa and Almonte schemed to engage in violent jihad, we were listening. When they attempted to leave the country, we were waiting. We will continue to be vigilant and to protect against terrorism no matter where its adherents intend to do harm."
Raiders surrounded a home in Elmwood Park where Almonte is believed to have stayed at around 11 p.m. Saturday after sealing off the block.
Other agents and police officers from New York City and New Jersey raided the North Bergen residence of Alessa.
American Ties to Terror Group
The group with which the suspects allegedly made contact, Al-Shabaab, is a Somalia-based Islamic terror group that controls large portions of Somalia and whose name means "Movement of Warrior Youth."
Several members of Al-Shabaab are American or have lived in America. One of the most senior leaders, Omar Hammami, now known as al Amriki (the American), was born and raised in Alabama, the child of a Syrian Muslim father and an American Christian mother.
Last year, federal authorities in Minnesota charged 14 men with allegedly attempting to get young Americans to join Al-Shabaab.
"We are also concerned that should they remain undetected and fail in their foreign aspirations," New York Police Commissioner Kelly said, "that they might strike domestically, as was discussed as a possibility in this case. The New York City Police Department has long been concerned about the threat posed by individuals radicalized in the United States, and welcomes its emphasis in the president's National Security Strategy published last month."