Two New Jersey men were arrested late Saturday night at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York as they sought to board flights to seek terror training from al Qaeda-linked jihadists in Somalia.
Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, of North Bergen, N.J., and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, of Elmwood Park, N.J., were arrested by FBI agents and later charged with conspiring to kill, maim and kidnap people outside the United States.
According to a criminal complaint filed in federal court by prosecutors at the U.S. attorneys office in New Jersey, Mr. Alessa and Mr. Almonte were arrested as they attempted to board separate jets bound for Cairo on their way to Somalia to join with the terrorist group Harakat Shabaab al-Mujahidin, also known as al-Shabaab.
Both men planned to make their way to Somalia by boat, authorities said.
“The arrests do not relate to any known immediate threat to the public or active plot against the United States,” the U.S. attorney’s office said in a statement.
During a news conference Sunday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said the men never posed a serious threat in the U.S.
“The people of New Jersey need to know they were never at any risk,” said Mr. Christie, who noted that the investigation of Mr. Alessa and Mr. Almonte began when he was U.S. attorney in that state. The suspects “may have thought they were getting on those planes, but they were never getting on those planes.”
“Here you have an extraordinary example of government success, led by federal and state law enforcement working together to get the job done the right way,” he said, adding that there is no other suspect in the scheme.
Al-Shabaab was listed in February 2008 by the U.S. government as a foreign terrorist organization, and its senior leadership has been identified by U.S. intelligence officials as being affiliated with al Qaeda. Many of its members have trained and fought in Afghanistan. The two men are among several U.S. citizens and immigrants who have been accused of joining or seeking to join al-Shabaab.
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told reporters that the pair had checked in for their flights and were preparing to board when they were arrested. He said there was “a scuffle” when Mr. Alessa refused an order by one of the arresting agents to get down on the ground.
After their arrests, Mr. Alessa, whose parents are Palestinian, and Mr. Almonte, a naturalized citizen from the Dominican Republic, were taken to the headquarters of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Newark, N.J. They are expected to appear for their initial court hearing Monday in U.S. District Court in Newark.
Federal law enforcement authorities became aware of the two men in 2006 after the FBI received a tip from an informant through the bureau’s Web page. Mr. Alessa and Mr. Almonte traveled to Jordan in February 2007, telling an undercover officer in February that they had hoped to be recruited as “mujahedeen fighters,” but were denied that opportunity.
During the investigation, undercover FBI agents and New York Police Department intelligence division officers recorded a number of meetings with the men, during which they supposedly discussed their plans and acknowledged a willingness to commit acts of violence in the United States, according to court records.
An FBI affidavit in the case — filed prior to the arrests — said Mr. Alessa and Mr. Almonte had trained in “various hand-to-hand fighting tactics,” as well as in the use of weapons. The affidavit, written by FBI agent Samuel Robinson, also said they were secretly recorded making statements “promoting violent jihad.”
In the affidavit, Mr. Alessa is quoted as telling Mr. Almonte and an undercover agent in November that “a lot of people need to get killed. … My soul cannot rest until I shed blood. I want to be the world’s [best] known terrorist.”