June 7, 2010

NJ men accused in terror plot due in court

Bruce Shipkowski and Matt Apuzzo, The Associated Press

ELMWOOD PARK, N.J. — The young men's intentions were sinister, investigators say: to head to Somalia to seek terror training from al-Qaida-affiliated jihadists and unleash attacks against fellow Americans.

But their preparations apparently were unsophisticated. They lifted weights, bought military-style pants, tried paintball, played violent video games and watched terrorist videos online, authorities said.

They had no known connections to terrorist groups, and their planned trip to Somalia apparently amounted to a leap of faith that they'd be embraced by the jihadists.

When the two New Jersey men tried to fly Saturday from New York's Kennedy Airport to Egypt and then continue on to Somalia, investigators who had been following them for years were waiting at their gates, according to federal officials in New Jersey and the New York Police Department.

Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, are accused of trying to join al-Shabab, which was designated by the U.S. as a terrorist group in 2008. They face charges of conspiring to kill, maim and kidnap persons outside the United States by joining al-Shabab.

Alessa and Almonte were scheduled to appear today in federal court in Newark.

If convicted, they could face life in prison.

Authorities say they recorded Alessa and Almonte talking about attacking Americans. Alessa allegedly said 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 was recorded saying, according to court documents.

In March, Alessa was recorded telling Almonte and an undercover officer with the New York Police Department that no one else they knew in New Jersey should be included in their plan to join al-Shabab because only the three of them were "serious about their plan and were preparing for it." Court documents do not indicate that authorities had other targets in the investigation.

Law enforcement became aware of the men in the fall of 2006, after receiving a tip. Since then, during the lengthy investigation, the undercover officer recorded conversations with the men in which they spoke about jihad against Americans, court papers show.

"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."

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly on Sunday cited the "excellent work" done by the officer, who Kelly said was of Egyptian descent and in his mid-20s.

The commissioner said Alessa, of North Bergen, and Almonte, of Elmwood Park, 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.

The men had traveled to Jordan three years ago and tried to get into Iraq, only to be rejected by jihadists, Kelly said.

Investigators say they are among many U.S. terrorism suspects to have been inspired by two well-known U.S. citizens who have recruited terrorists through the Internet: Adam Gadahn, an al-Qaida spokesman in Pakistan, and Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical al-Qaida cleric hiding in Yemen who is believed to have helped inspire recent attacks including the Fort Hood shooting, the Times Square bombing attempt and the failed Christmas Day airline bombing.

Both have made public calls for smaller, single acts of terrorism and court documents show Alessa and Almonte appearing to be inspired by that idea.

No one answered the door at Almonte's house and the blinds were drawn. A man who said he was Almonte's father walked into the home Sunday with another man.

(Continued on page 2)

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