NEWARK, N.J. – NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Two New Jersey men accused of trying to join a terrorist group in Somalia intended to commit acts of violence even though their plans appeared haphazard, a federal prosecutor said Monday.
"Sophistication is not a measure of danger," U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said. "Their intentions were described pretty clearly. They were watching certain videos and interested in what certain people were saying and advocating."
Mohamed Mahmood Alessa and Carlos Eduardo Almonte made their first court appearance Monday in Newark.
Alessa, 20, and Almonte, 24, were arrested Saturday night at New York's Kennedy Airport as they prepared to fly to Egypt and then to Somalia, authorities said. They are charged with conspiring to kill, maim and kidnap persons outside the United States by joining al-Shabab, a group designated by the U.S. in 2008 as a terrorist organization.
Alessa and Almonte appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Madeline Cox Arleo on Monday with their hands and feet shackled. Both have dark curly hair and beards. Alessa had several cuts and bruises on his forehead.
The men spoke only to affirm that they understood the charge against them. Two of Alessa's family members and court-appointed attorneys for both men declined to comment after the hearing.
Alessa and Almonte will be held without bail pending a detention hearing on Thursday. If convicted, they could face life in prison.
Investigators say the two Muslim men intended to head to Somalia to seek terror training from al-Qaida-affiliated jihadists and to unleash attacks against fellow Americans.
But their preparations apparently were far from sophisticated. They lifted weights, bought military-style pants, tried paintball, played violent video games and watched terrorist videos online, authorities said. The only weapons they possessed were two folding knives.
The men had no contact with Somali terrorists, according to officials and court documents, and their planned trip to Somalia amounted to a leap of faith that they'd be accepted by a terrorist group. Fishman would not say Monday whether they had made any actual contacts with al-Shabab.
Law enforcement became aware of the men in the fall of 2006, when the FBI received an anonymous tip through its website, and some unidentified family members cooperated with investigators, according to a criminal complaint.
In March 2007, the FBI conducted a consensual search of Almonte's computer, revealing documents advocating jihad against the perceived enemies of Islam, court papers show.
An undercover officer met the men last year and began recording conversations in which the two spoke about jihad against Americans, investigators said in court papers.
"I leave this time. God willing, I never come back," authorities say Alessa told the officer last year. "Only way I would come back here is if I was in the land of jihad and the leader ordered me to come back here and do something here. Ah, I love that."
A senior U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation, said the yearlong undercover probe gave investigators a firsthand glimpse at the radicalization process. Investigators are always interested in where would-be terrorists draw their inspiration and how they hatch their plots, but they have to rely on recreations of that process when they swoop in after attacks such as the failed Times Square and Christmas Day bombings.
Though the two men discussed attacking U.S. troops, the investigation revealed no immediate threats to soldiers, since the U.S. has no permanent military presence in Somalia.
Younus Mohammad, a 31-year-old from Brooklyn who attended Monday's hearing, said he knew of Alessa and Almonte from northern New Jersey's Arab-American community and considered them fervent but relatively harmless.
"These were just young, zealous kids who had zeal because they perceived their religion is under attack in America and they spoke out," he said. "I think they were just wild-eyed, with aims that would have been impossible to carry out."
Fishman didn't provide details of how the men were arrested except to say that both resisted and that passengers on the planes were not endangered.
"At no time was the public in immediate danger from these defendants," he said. "There was never any chance that the defendants would get on those planes."
Alessa, of North Bergen, and Almonte, of Elmwood Park, are American citizens, authorities said. Alessa was born in the United States and is of Palestinian descent. Almonte is a naturalized citizen who was born in the Dominican Republic.
In Alessa's working-class neighborhood directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan, a next-door neighbor and classmate described him as calm but added that he sometimes got into fights in high school.
"It was just talk — like acting tough," Ericka Mendez said. "He seemed like a nice person."
Almonte attended high school in suburban Elmwood Park, about 10 miles to the northwest and bordering Paterson, a city that is home to a sizable Arab-American population.
Mohamed El Filali, outreach director for the Islamic Center of Passaic County, New Jersey's largest mosque, said Alessa's father attended the mosque sporadically and the two defendants were seen there "once in a blue moon" but were not regular attendees.
Officials said the two were not planning an imminent attack in the New York-New Jersey area.
Somalia, an impoverished East African nation of about 10 million people, has not had a functioning government for more than a decade, although the U.S. is backing a transitional government there. The Pentagon's top commander in the region has included Somalia on a list of countries where clandestine American military operations designed to disrupt militant groups would be targeted.
Almonte told the undercover officer in April that there would soon be American troops in Somalia, which he allegedly said was good because it would not be as gratifying to kill only Africans.
Over the past year, a number of Somali youths have traveled from the U.S. back to Somalia to fight with al-Shabab insurgents. Meanwhile, battle-hardened al-Qaida insurgents have moved out of safe havens along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border into Somalia, where vast ungoverned spaces allow them to train and mobilize recruits without interference.
Authorities have been working with Somalis in the U.S. to stem the radicalization of young people who are being recruited to join the terror fight.
Associated Press writers Matt Apuzzo and Eileen Sullivan from Washington and Bonny Ghosh in North Bergen, N.J., contributed to this report.