ELMWOOD PARK, N.J. – They were recorded talking jihad against their fellow Americans. But they hadn’t talked the jihadists into accepting them.

When the two New Jersey men tried to fly out of New York’s Kennedy Airport in hopes of getting terror training in Somalia, investigators who had been following them for years were waiting for each of them at the gate, officials said Sunday.

Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, were arrested Saturday before they could board separate flights to Egypt and then continue on to Somalia, federal officials in New Jersey and the New York Police Department said.

They are the latest of several U.S. Muslims accused of joining or trying to join terrorist groups, radicalized with help from fellow Americans preaching violent jihad over the Internet.

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.

They had no known connections to established terrorist groups, however. They had traveled to Jordan three years ago and tried to get into Iraq, only to be rejected by jihadists, New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said. Their trip to Somalia apparently amounted to a leap of faith that they would be embraced by al-Shabab, a violent extremist group based in Somalia and connected to al-Qaida.

Though Americans are potentially valuable to terrorist groups, they also carry the risk of being undercover investigators — like the one who had gained Alessa’s and Almonte’s trust well before their arrests.

In March, Alessa was recorded telling Almonte and the NYPD undercover officer 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 inquiry.

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.

“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.”

Kelly said Alessa, of North Bergen, and Almonte, of Elmwood Park, are U.S. citizens. Alessa was born in the United States and is of Palestinian descent. Almonte, a naturalized citizen, was born in the Dominican Republic.

They are accused of trying to join al-Shabab, designated by the U.S. as a terrorist group in 2008.

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 the Fort Hood shooting, the Times Square bombing attempt and the failed Christmas Day airline bombing.

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

Alessa and Almonte face charges of conspiring to kill, maim, and kidnap persons outside the U.S. by joining al-Shabab. State and federal law enforcement agents who have been investigating the men took them into custody, authorities said. They’re slated to appear today in federal court in Newark.

No one answered the door at Almonte’s house. A man who said he was Almonte’s father walked into the home shortly before 1 p.m. with another man.

“I’m very confused by all this. He’s my son,” he said.

David Castro of Elmwood Park is an Army reservist who lives across the street from Almonte. He said he doesn’t know the suspect but knows his father and described the family as friendly.

Terrorists’ recruiting techniques “almost seem better than the U.S. Army,” said Castro, 56. “This is happening not just in bad neighborhoods. This is happening in good neighborhoods like this one.”

Alessa lived with his parents, said Hemant Shah, the family’s landlord. Alessa was attending Bergen Community College, Shah said, and his father worked at a convenience store.

“It’s surprising,” Shah said of the arrests. “If it’s true, it’s very scary.”

He checked on Alessa’s parents Sunday and said they didn’t want to talk to reporters. “His parents, they were trying to put him in the right direction,” Shah said.


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