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Two Arrested at Kennedy Airport on Terror Charges


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Two New Jersey men in their 20s who were bound for Somalia to join an Islamic extremist group and to kill American troops were arrested at Kennedy International Airport late Saturday, federal and local authorities announced on Sunday.

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Robert Stolarik for The New York Times

Outside the home of Mohamed Hamoud Alessa, in North Bergen, N.J.

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Joe Epstein/Associated Press

The home of Carlos Eduardo Almonte, one of the men arrested at as he tried to board a plane, in North Bergen, N.J.

The men, Mohamed Haoud Alessa, 20, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, were to join Al Shabaab, which claims ideological kinship with Al Qaeda, and was thought to have provided a haven to Qaeda operatives wanted for bombings of United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The men were taken into custody as they prepared to take separate flights to Egypt, the first leg of their journey to Somalia to join Al Shabaab, the officials said in a news release.

They were charged in a criminal complaint with conspiring to kill, maim and kidnap people outside the United States and were expected to be arraigned in federal court in Newark on Monday, according to the officials.

The men have been under scrutiny since 2006 by the F.B.I., after agents there received a tip. Eventually an undercover officer from the New York Police Department recorded numerous meetings and conversations with them, during which they discussed their plans, according to the complaint sworn out by Samuel P. Robinson, an F.B.I. agent assigned to the Newark office.

The arrests, which were announced by the office of New Jersey United States Attorney Paul J. Fishman, along with the F.B.I., the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness and the New York Police Department, were first reported early on Sunday in The Star-Ledger.

The two men, both United States citizens — Mr. Almonte lives in Elmwood Park, N.J., and Mr. Alessa in North Bergen, N.J. — physically conditioned themselves, engaged in paintball and tactical training, saved thousands of dollars for their trip acquired military gear and apparel, according to the criminal complaint.

They talked about what they said was their obligation to wage violent jihad and at times expressed a willingness to commit acts of violence in the United States, the complaint said.

On Nov. 29, 2009, for example, the complaint said that Mr. Alessa told Mr. Almonte and the undercover: "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 . . . 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.

The next day, Mr. Alessa told the undercover: "I leave this time, God willing, I never come back. I'll never see this crap hole. 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."

The complaint said that more recently, on April 25, Mr. Almonte said that there would soon be United States troops in Somalia — which he called a good development because it would not be as gratifying to kill only Africans.

The men also watched and played for the undercover officer numerous video and audio recordings that promoted violent jihad, including lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni cleric who is suspected of using the Web to incite Muslims in the West to violence, and videos featuring attacks by Al Shabaab and other terrorist groups, the complaint said.

Al Shabaab was designated as a terrorist organization by the State Department in 2008. Federal authorities have said that as two dozen young men of Somali descent who had disappeared in the past two years from their homes in the Minneapolis area had been being recruited by Al Shabaab, which means "the youth" in Arabic, and one of them carried out a suicide bombing there in 2008.

Last year, the group claimed responsibility for mortar barrages aimed at a United States congressman, Donald M. Payne, a Democrat from New Jersey who was visiting Somalia.

Raymond W. Kelly, the New York police commissioner, said that like in other criminal cases, the department can not publicly acknowledge the undercover officer, but praised his work.

"Even when individuals plan to support terrorist activity abroad, we remain concerned that once they reach their foreign destinations they may be redirected against targets back home, as we've seen in the past," he said. "We are also concerned that should they remain undetected and fail in their foreign aspirations that they might strike domestically, as was discussed as a possibility in this case."

Mr. Fishman said the case demonstrated the seriousness with which law enforcement regard those who seek to join the ranks of violent extremists.

"When Alessa and Almonte schemed to engage in violent jihad, we were listening," he said. "When they attempted to leave the country, we were waiting. We will continue to be vigilant and to protect against terrorism no matter where its adherents intend to do harm."

Mr. Alessa had lived with his parents in a second floor apartment on 81st Street in North Bergen for at least 14 years, according to a downstairs neighbor who also owns the building. In years past, Mr. Alessa played in the backyard with her children, the neighbor said.

The family came from Jordan, the neighbor said. Mr. Alessa's mother, Nadia, had been a teacher at some point, and his father had owned a store. The son went to college, the neighbor said.

He wore a long beard and often hung around with a heavier set man who the neighbor thought was Mr. Almonte.

"He was quiet. He was civil. There was nothing weird about him," said the neighbor, who refused to give her name. "They kept to themselves, we kept to ourselves."

Charles B. McKenna, the director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, compared the radicalization of youth to the recruitment efforts of common street gangs, saying in the news release: "We must be vigilant in stopping our young men and women from being co-opted and trained to do us harm."

Michael B. Ward, the special agent in charge of the Newark F.B.I. office, who oversees the Joint Terrorist Task Force there, said that the arrests were triggered by the men's plans to travel overseas.

The two men were taken into custody at the airport based on arrest warrants issued by the United States District Court in Newark, according to the news release. Both were charged in a criminal complaint with a single count of conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim, or injure persons or damage property in a foreign country. If convicted, they face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

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