The men, both North Jersey residents, were charged with conspiring
to commit an act of international terrorism through a group tied to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network, according to officials familiar with the details of the arrests.
Mohamed Hamoud Alessa, 20, of North Bergen, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 26, of Elmwood Park were apprehended at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens before they could board separate flights to Egypt, where they were to start journeys to Somalia. The men were arrested by teams of state and federal law-enforcement agents who have been investigating the pair since October 2006, according to the officials, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the operation publicly.
"Two individuals were arrested at JFK in connection with an ongoing investigation. At this time, we can provide no further details because the investigation is ongoing. The arrests do not relate to an immediate threat," said Jose Lozano, a spokesman for the state Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness.
Shortly after 10:30 p.m., FBI agents sealed off Alessa’s street in North Bergen. The local police department would say only that an investigation was in progress. FBI agents, North Bergen police and the New York Police Department descended on the home on 81st Street as neighbors looked on. According to property records, Alessa’s parents, Mahmoud and Nadia Alessa, rented the top floor of their house amid a quiet row of middle-class homes. As agents poured in, lights went on throughout the house.
Just over 10 miles away, in Elmwood Park, 20 cars with agents and police arrived at Almonte’s home about 11 p.m. Neighbors emerged from their homes as the racket from the raid broke the silence of quiet Falmouth Avenue. Again, agents turned on lights throughout the house, from the basement to the attic. They also could be seen looking around the exterior with flashlights and also searched the detached garage. Neighbors of Almonte declined to comment, but a couple who appeared to be family members showed up around 11:30 and greeted the agents as if they knew them. The older man was escorted into the house and could be seen embracing one of the FBI agents in the kitchen.
Neither Alessa nor Almonte is married. Both are American citizens, said the anonymous officials.
The men are scheduled to appear Monday in U.S. District Court in Newark.
The arrests were the culmination of Operation Arabian Knight. Details were still sketchy Saturday night, but authorities said the suspects have been under surveillance for some time and were being shadowed by an undercover New York City cop who managed to infiltrate their circle of friends and keep tabs as they consumed jihadist videos and literature, bought airline tickets and prepared to travel overseas.
Officials said the suspects were not planning an imminent attack in the New Jersey-New York area but were believed to be joining with the terrorist fight against Americans in Somalia.
Authorities said the men planned to wage jihad as part of a Somalia-based Islamist terror group called al Shabaab, an organization of several thousand fighters spread through Somalia’s southern region. Al Shabaab, whose full Arabic name means "Mujahideen Youth Movement," has had ties to al Qaeda since 2007, according to national security experts.
Last year, federal authorities in Minnesota charged 14 men connected to a plot designed to entice young Americans to join up with al Shabaab. And, in February, the New York Times reported the group announced it was joining forces with the ‘’international jihad of Al Qaeda."
As in the Minnesota case, investigators believe Alessa and Almonte were recruited by others, who are also now coming under scrutiny. "We hope this will lead to a spider web of arrests," said one official briefed on the case.
Officials said the New Jersey suspects were believed to have led fairly normal lives in North Jersey but then started acting strangely and gravitating toward anti-American sentiment. Their families aided in the investigation after growing worried about the beliefs and actions of the men, officials close to the probe said.
The arrests come on the heels of last month’s attempt to set off a car bomb in Times Square and, before that, the Christmas Day incident in which a 23-year-old Nigerian tried to blow up an airliner by setting off explosives inside his underwear. Both attacks were unsuccessful.
Saturday night’s arrests had been planned for days, officials said, as agents tried to determine the best possible time and place to apprehend the men without interfering in their planning or tipping them off. In order to prove the suspects had "intent" to commit an act of terror, federal prosecutors in New Jersey insisted that the men be allowed to go to the airport and begin the boarding process. That way, there would be less of a chance they could later say they had changed their mind or grown uneasy with their plans.
By early Saturday morning, agents had worked out a strategy of following the men to the airport and tracking them through their security check-in, officials said. After that, they planned to quietly get the men out of public view so their arrests could not be seen by any associates who might have been following them. The men were allowed to make it to the jetway boarding ramps before agents took them into custody.
The arrests and planning were coordinated by the Joint Terrorism Task Force, a multi-agency group that includes agents of the FBI, state homeland security office, New York Police Department, Port Authority police and an assortment of federal security agencies. The investigation began as two separate probes after the FBI and New Jersey homeland security detectives received individual tips about the men, officials said.
In the months leading up to their planned travel, authorities said, Alessa and Almonte saved thousands of dollars, conditioned themselves physically through tactical training and dry runs at paintball fields and acquired gear and apparel to be used once they joined up with al Shabaab in Somalia. The men boasted that they wanted to wage holy war against the United States both at home and overseas, said investigators.
The prosecution of Alessa and Almonte is being led by New Jersey’s new U.S. attorney, Paul Fishman. In a meeting with The Star-Ledger’s editorial board last month, Fishman hinted there were serious national-security investigations on the verge of becoming public, though he declined to say anything more.
"There are cases in the pipeline that are of huge significance," Fishman said.
Somalia has long been a trouble spot for Western nations and, especially, the United States. With the country in tatters because of civil war, the United States sent in troops in mid-1992 and by year’s end the operation had been transformed into a military deployment designed to protect humanitarian efforts.
In October 1993, 18 American soldiers were killed trying to take out key members of the leadership of the warring clan that controlled the Somali capital of Mogadishu. Some have suggested there was a link between that skirmish and bin Laden, although others dispute that.
More recently, the Pentagon’s top commander in the region included Somalia on a small list of countries where clandestine American military operations would be targeted to disrupt militant groups.
Somalia is still caught in the throes of civil war, but there has recently been a renewed effort to bring peace to the lawless country. The United States is backing the current Somali government in its attempt to re-establish law and order.
Al Shabaab has been waging its own militant battle and has been listed on the U.S. government’s roster of international terror organizations.
According to a Council on Foreign Relations briefing, al Shabaab’s leader released a video in September 2008 pledging allegiance to bin Laden and calling for Muslim youth to come to Somalia. In February 2009, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second-in-command, released a video that began by praising al Shabaab’s seizure of the Somali town of Baidoa. The group will "engage in Jihad against the American-made government in the same way they engaged in Jihad against the Ethiopians and the warlords before them," Zawahiri said.