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Police arrested two New Jersey men at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Saturday as they prepared to travel to Somalia to join a militant group with the aim of killing American soldiers. They are the latest case of a phenomenon that officials find troubling: US citizens drawn to anti-American jihad.
The Star-Ledger of Newark, New Jersey, identifies the two men as Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, a US citizen of Palestinian descent, and Carlos Eduardo “Omar” Almonte, 24, a naturalized US citizen who was born in the Dominican Republic. They were arrested at the airport as each prepared to board separate flights for Egypt, from where they planned to make their way to Somalia.
The two men appear to have been amateurs, and spent months before their arrest lifting weights, shopping for military-style outfits, playing shoot-‘em-up video games, and bragging about their intentions to undercover cops, according to the Associated Press (details of their routine found here.)
The Associated Press reports that the two men stand accused of conspiring to maim, kill, and kidnap persons outside the United States by attempting to join Somali militant group Al Shabab, an Al Qaeda-linked militia that was designated a terrorist group by the United States in 2008. The group controls large swaths of Somalia, which has been without a central government since 1991. It is believed to be involved in the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
Police emphasized to the Star-Ledger that the arrests do not reflect an immediate threat to the United States, although The New York Times reports that last November Mr. Alessa told an undercover cop that if they could not wage jihad in Somalia then they would bring the fight home.
Last Nov. 29, for example, the complaint said that Mr. Alessa told Mr. Almonte and the undercover officer: “They only fear you when you have a gun and when you — when you start killing them, and when you — when you take their head, and you go like this, and you behead it on camera.” He added: “We’ll start doing killing here, if I can’t do it over there.” Mr. Alessa used the Arabic words for gun and killing, according to the complaint.
Their airport arrest was the culmination of a nearly four-year-long investigation by state and federal authorities – dubbed “Operation Arabian Knight” – that followed an anonymous tip in Oct. 2006. Key to that operation was an undercover police officer of Egyptian descent in his mid-20s who befriended Alessa and Almonte and secretly recorded hours of their conversations, according to the New York Daily News:
"Obviously, we can't put out his name, but he did really excellent work here," [Police Commissioner Raymond] Kelly said.
Alessa and Almonte met at Alessa's place Saturday afternoon so Alessa's parents could drive them to JFK. They had return tickets for July 11.
Cops greeted them at the gate.
"When Alessa and Almonte schemed to engage in violent jihad, we were listening. When they attempted to leave the country, we were waiting," said New Jersey US Attorney Paul Fishman.
Alessa and Almonte spoke with the officer about many of their terror-related goals: their plans to train with Al Shabab and their previous attempts to join the jihad against American forces in Iraq, their desire to kill US troops, and their feelings about Yemen-based US cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki.
The Daily News reports that he is seen as a major influence on the men, and that they hoped to outdo the work of another American who famously fell under Mr. Awlaki’s sway: Major Nidal Malik Hassan, a US army psychiatrist charged with killing 13 soldiers at Fort Hood military base in Texas in a shooting spree last November.
In a special report in December, The Christian Science Monitor detailed how a steady stream of young Somali-American men have headed back to a homeland they barely know, "driven by a heady brew of nationalist and religious fervor and lured by what experts say is a sophisticated recruitment network exploiting vulnerabilities in the Somali diaspora.... Their path to radicalization, and perhaps eventually to the ranks of militant Islam, represents a pressing concern for US counterterrorism officials today."
Of note with the New Jersey men is that neither is of Somali decent. Yet they sympathized with the Al Qaeda-linked insurgents there.