Two New Jersey men who talked about attacking Americans and sought to fight alongside terrorists in Somalia were arrested at New York's Kennedy Airport as they tried to leave the U.S. and join the al-Qaida-affiliated jihadists, authorities said.
Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 26, were arrested Saturday before they could board separate flights to Egypt and then continue on to Somalia, federal officials in New Jersey and New York Police Department said in a news release.
The men were inspired at least in part by Omar Hammami, the Alabama-born face of the Somalia-based terrorist group, and Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico-born cleric now hiding in Yemen who has been linked to the Fort Hood shootings, the Christmas Day bombing attempt and the failed Times Square car bomb plot, reported Fox News, who quoted federal prosecutors.
They had been under investigation since 2006. New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said they had traveled to Jordan in 2007 and tried to get into Iraq, but were turned back.
During the lengthy investigation, an NYPD undercover officer recorded conversations with the men in which they spoke about jihad against Americans.
"I leave this time. God willing, I never come back," authorities say Alessa told the officer last year. "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."
Alessa also was allegedly recorded telling Almonte that he would outdo Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, last year.
"He's not better than me. I'll do twice what he did," Alessa allegedly said.
Kelly said both men are American citizens. Alessa was born in the United States and is of Palestinian descent. Almonte is a naturalized citizen who was born in the Dominican Republic.
They are the latest of many Americans or immigrants to the U.S. accused of joining or trying to join al-Shabab, a violent extremist group based in Somalia and connected to al-Qaida. Al-Shabab was designated by the U.S. as a terrorist group in 2008.
Alessa, of North Bergen, and Almonte, of Elmwood Park, face charges of conspiring to kill, maim, and kidnap persons outside the United States by joining al-Shabab. Teams of state and federal law enforcement agents who have been investigating the men took them into custody, authorities said. They are scheduled to appear Monday in federal court in Newark.
Kelly on Sunday cited the "excellent work" done by the undercover officer, who Kelly said was of Egyptian descent and in his mid-20s. The officer joined the department in 2005.
Alessa and Almonte had planned their trip to Somalia for several months, saving thousands of dollars, undergoing tactical training and test runs at paintball fields to condition themselves physically, and acquiring equipment and clothing they could use when they joined al-Shabab in Somalia, officials said. Both had bragged about wanting to wage holy war against the United States both at home and internationally, according to a criminal complaint.
Officials said the two men were not planning an imminent attack in the New York-New Jersey area.
A neighbor of Alessa's, Helen Gonyou, said Alessa was attending school and lived with his parents but that she had not seen him in a while. They are good neighbors, she said, adding that she regularly exchanged pleasantries with Alessa's father.
She cautioned against prejudgment and called the charges an "unfortunate set of circumstances."
"I just have to hope that if the case is true, they caught them before they could do bodily harm to anyone," she said.
Last November, investigators recorded Alessa telling Almonte that lots of people needed to be killed.
"My soul cannot rest until I shed blood," Alessa said, according to court documents. "I wanna, like, be the world's known terrorist."
Almonte told the undercover officer in April that there would soon be American troops in Somalia, which he allegedly said was good because it would not be as gratifying to kill only Africans.
Somalia, an impoverished East African nation of about 10 million people, has not had a functioning government for more than a decade, although the U.S. is backing a transitional government there. The Pentagon's top commander in the region has included Somalia on a list of countries where clandestine American military operations designed to disrupt militant groups would be targeted.
Over the past year, a number of Somali youths have traveled from the U.S. back to Somalia to fight with al-Shabab insurgents. At the same time, battle-hardened al-Qaida insurgents have moved out of safe havens along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border into Somalia, where vast ungoverned spaces allow them to train and mobilize recruits without interference.
U.S. authorities, including the FBI, have been working with Somali diasporas, including a large community in Minnesota, to stem the radicalization of young people who are being recruited to join the terror fight. U.S. officials have warned that the recruitment can take place both over the Internet and through extremists in the U.S., including possibly in some mosques.
Officials are concerned that such radicalized Somalis who are U.S. citizens but are plotting to attack America, may be able to move more freely in and out of the U.S., presenting a threat that would be harder to detect and prevent.
Somalia welcomed the arrests of Alessa and Almonte.
"Foreign terrorists here are an obstacle to lasting peace in Somalia. So we welcome the move and we are calling on all governments to take such steps against al-Shabab and all terrorists at large," said Sheik Abdirisaq Mohamed Qaylow, a spokesman for the Ministry of Information.
The arrests follow two failed terrorist attacks in the U.S. in recent months: an attempted car bombing in Times Square last month, allegedly by Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad, and the alleged attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Associated Press writers Tom Hays and Karen Matthews in New York, Mohamed Sheikh Nor in Mogadishu, Somalia, Lolita Baldor in Washington and AP Radio Correspondent Julie Walker in New York contributed to this report.
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