by: Mike Levine
Federal authorities arrested two New Jersey men late Saturday night as they tried to leave the country for terrorist training camps in war-torn Somalia, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
The men, identified as 20-year-old Mohamed Hamoud Alessa and 26-year-old Carlos Eduardo Almonte, were taken into custody by FBI agents and others at J.F.K. International Airport outside New York City. They were set to take separate flights to Egypt and then make their way to Somalia, where an Al Qaeda-linked group known as al-Shabaab has been warring with the nation’s fledgling transitional government.
One source called Somalia “the Afghanistan of now,” suggesting that the near-anarchist state in Somalia has allowed the country to become a fertile training ground for terrorist recruits from around the world.
Alessa, a U.S. citizen, and Almonte, a Jordanian citizen believed to also have dual U.S. citizenship, “grew up” in the United States, becoming the latest in a “disconcerting pattern” of “people living among us” who are radicalized with extremist ideology, one source said.
The men did not pose an “imminent threat,” but “getting on planes to receive” terrorist training means they posed a broader threat, the source said.
Federal authorities have been watching Alessa and Almonte since 2006, when the men’s unspecified “internet activity” led the New York Police Department to launch an investigation, ultimately dubbed “Operation Arabian Knight.”
The FBI and others had the two men under surveillance for a significant amount of time, with one official calling the investigation “well organized.”
While a team of federal authorities watched the men arrive at J.F.K. International Airport, others raided their homes in Elmwood Park, N.J., and North Bergen N.J.
The men have been charged with terrorism-related offenses and will appear in a Newark, N.J., federal court on Monday. In such cases, suspects are often charged with “conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization.”
No more arrests related to the case were expected.
FBI officials in Washington could not be reached immediately for comment, and a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which assisted the investigation, declined to comment.
FBI Supervisory Special Agent Rich Kolko, a spokesman with the FBI’s New York City field office, confirmed that two men were arrested at J.F.K International Airport, adding only that there was “no threat at the airport.”
For more than a year, the FBI has been investigating how dozens of Americans from across the country were recruited to train and fight alongside al-Shabaab, which has pledged its allegiance to Al Qaeda.
In October 2008, 27-year-old college student Shirwa Ahmed of Minneapolis became “the first known American suicide bomber” when he blew himself up in Somalia, killing dozens, according to the FBI.
FBI Director Robert Mueller has acknowledged that al-Shabaab “would like to undertake operations outside of Somalia.” But U.S. officials have said repeatedly there is no intelligence to suggest al-Shabaab is plotting attacks inside the United States.
Somalia has had no stable government since 1991, when dictator Siad Barre was ousted from power. The transitional government has had trouble keeping Muslim militants at bay, and in 2006 fighting with al-Shabaab intensified after Western-backed Ethiopian forces invaded the country.