New Jersey terror plot: another airport arrest is no coincidence

The arrest of Mohammed Mahmood Alessa and Carlos Eduardo Almonte on Sunday in the New Jersey terror plot was the second terror arrest at JFK airport in two months, perhaps by design.

By , Staff writer

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    This courtroom sketch shows Mohamed Mahmood Alessa (l.) and Carlos Eduardo Almonte as they appeared at Federal Court hearing Monday in Newark, N.J.
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Call it a not-too-subtle message from the FBI to alleged terrorists: Even if you get to the airport, we will arrest you.

For the second time since the beginning of May, law-enforcement officials have made a terror-related arrest at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Last weekend, federal authorities put the cuffs on two US citizens, Mohamed Mahmood Alessa and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, just before they could board a flight to Egypt. On Monday morning, both men were arraigned in federal court in Newark, N.J., and charged with conspiring to murder, kidnap, and maim outside the United States.

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It’s no coincidence that the arrest occurred at an airport, say former law-enforcement agents and a former US attorney. That makes the case against the two New Jersey residents even stronger, they say. In addition, it probably gave the Federal Bureau of Investigation the opportunity to listen in on any last-minute phone calls the men made before they boarded their flight.

"They could have arrested them in New Jersey,” says Stan Twardy, a former US Attorney for the District of Connecticut. “But arresting them at the airport shows greater evidence of their intent to go through with their actions.”

The arrest of the two individuals follows the attempted car bombing in Times Square on May 1. The alleged suspect, Faisal Shahzad, was a naturalized American citizen, and he was also arrested at the JFK airport. However, in his case, it was alert US Customs agents who spotted his name on a no-fly list after FBI agents who were tailing him lost track of his whereabouts.

In the latest case, according to the criminal complaint, the defendants allegedly hoped to go to Somalia and join up with the terror group Al Shabaab. Their first stop was going to be Cairo, where they hoped to get more people to join them.

According to the complaint, they played computer games that simulated combat. And on April 25, Mr. Almonte, in a recorded statement, is alleged to have said there would soon be US troops in Somalia, which was good because it would not be fun to target only Africans.

But a third member of this purported trip was an undercover police officer of Egyptian background. He recorded their conversations, he went on paint-ball forays with them, and he watched video recordings of anti-American rants by radical Islamic clerics. They trusted him to the point that they gave him thousands of dollars of their savings to hold in his bank account.

Even though law-enforcement officers had infiltrated this duo, a former FBI agent thinks it was a good idea to hold off on the arrest until the men arrived at the airport. “If there is an additional contact, you want to wait to see if they pair up with someone else,” says Danny Defenbaugh, who formerly ran the FBI’s Dallas office and is now a private investigator.

Mr. Twardy, who now does white-collar criminal defense at Day Pitney LLP, says he would not be surprised if the defendants’ cellphones were tapped. “You want to know who they talk to en route,” he says. “Both here and overseas. Maybe they are getting moral support from someone.”

According to the complaint, in February 2007, the two men had traveled to Jordan where they hoped to get recruited to fight against US troops.

Before their flight, their luggage was searched by US Customs agents, who found hydration systems and camouflage cargo pants.

When they returned, the FBI interviewed them and received permission from Almonte to search his computer. The FBI found documents authored by Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and others advocating violent jihad, according to the documents.

This time, they appeared to have no specific contacts in Somalia. In their plans, according to the complaint, were dreams of getting the latest model AK-47, a Soviet assault rifle. Also according to the complaint, Almonte told the undercover policeman that if they couldn’t start killing in Somalia, “we’ll start doing killing here."

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