The two New Jersey men who were arrested late Saturday for allegedly planning to fight in Somalia with al-Shabab, an extremist group allied with al-Qaida, are only the latest in a stream of American recruits attracted to violent jihad in the failed African state.
The increasing allure for some Americans of destinations such as Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen has alarmed U.S. officials, though no evidence has surfaced that the two men planned any immediate attacks in the United States or overseas. Officials fear that radicalized Americans, even if they start off as naive as the two New Jersey aspirants appeared to be, could return home battle-hardened and determined to commit terrorist acts on American soil.
Indeed, one of the two New Jersey men, who were often in the company of a man they thought to be a cohort but was in fact a wired undercover officer with the New York City Police Department, spoke of "doing killing here, if I can't do it over there," according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court in New Jersey.
Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, were arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York as they attempted to board separate flights to Egypt, from where they planned to make their way to Somalia.
The two, who had been under surveillance for four years, trained for their departure by simulating combat at paintball facilities and using "first-person shooter" computer software, as well as working out and hiking through snow, according to the criminal complaint. They bought combat apparel, hydration systems, night-vision binoculars and tactical-brand flashlights, and saved up thousands of dollars to fund their travels.
Both are U.S. citizens. Alessa, who is of Palestinian descent, was born in the United States. Almonte, who was born in the Dominican Republic, is a naturalized citizen, according to U.S. and New York officials.
Alessa and Almonte are scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in New Jersey today and are expected to face charges of conspiring to kill, maim and kidnap persons outside the United States. They face life in prison if convicted.
Attempts to reach their families by phone were unsuccessful, but a man who described himself as Almonte's father told the Associated Press, "I'm very confused by all this." An unidentified member of Almonte's family cooperated with investigators as early as 2006, according to the complaint.
The arrests reinforced fears of homegrown terrorism that have been building in recent months. Fourteen U.S. citizens have been charged with terrorism offenses in federal courts this year, including Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized citizen from Pakistan charged in a failed Times Square car bombing May 1. The investigation leading to Saturday's arrests bears similarities to a 2009 case in which 14 men in Minnesota were charged with recruiting American youths to train with or fight on behalf of terrorist groups in Somalia.
"There's been a whole slew of disaffected youth in the United States willing to become radicalized and take action, either overseas or here," one federal law enforcement official said. "Several years ago, people were saying this is a problem primarily limited to Europe. But clearly, we're seeing more of it here."
The allegation that Alessa and Almonte trained by playing paintball was similar to the case of 11 Muslim men convicted in federal court in Alexandria, Va., after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in what is called the Virginia jihad network case. Some of those men also played paintball in the woods to prepare for jihad, prosecutors said.
Attempting to explain the rise in homegrown radicals, U.S. officials point to the use of the Internet by Islamists who can communicate effectively in English to Westerners.
According to the criminal complaint, the two New Jersey men listened to a number of U.S. citizens who have used the Internet to trumpet al-Qaida and violent jihad, including Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemen-based cleric linked to the Fort Hood, Texas, shootings and the Christmas Day attempt to bomb a U.S. airliner, and Adam Gadahn, an al-Qaida spokesman in Pakistan. Almonte kept audio recordings of Awlaki on his cellphone. The men also watched a video featuring Omar Hammami, a U.S.-born fighter with al-Shabab, according to the complaint.
Al-Shabab, which means "youth," emerged after the Ethiopian army, with the backing of the United States, invaded Somalia in late 2006 and toppled an Islamic government.
The United States, which has designated al-Shabab a terrorist organization, has supported the fragile Somali transitional government with weapons, training, intelligence and logistical support.
Al-Shabab wants to topple the transition government and install a Taliban-like Islamic emirate. The group has also expressed its allegiance to al-Qaida. Al-Shabab is thought to be harboring key al-Qaida figures, including some involved in the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Both Osama bin Laden and Awlaki have praised al-Shabab, providing the militia with legitimacy in the jihadist world.
Alessa and Almonte first came to the attention of U.S. law enforcement in 2006, when an acquaintance told the FBI that they had begun watching terrorist videos on the Internet and speaking of the United States and all non-Muslims as "enemies."
In 2007, the two traveled to Jordan, where they wanted to be recruited as mujaheddin to fight in Iraq, but they were rejected and "were upset at the individuals who failed to recruit them," according to the complaint.
In recent months they again stepped up efforts to fight overseas, but were being monitored and recorded by the NYPD officer.