NEWARK (Reuters) - A judge on Monday ordered two New Jersey men jailed until their next court appearance on charges they planned to meet Islamist militants in Somalia with the intent to kill troops and other people.
Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, were arrested at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport on Saturday as they tried to board separate flights to Egypt on their way to Somalia, U.S. prosecutors said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Madeline Cox Arleo ordered them held until a bail hearing on Thursday during a five-minute proceeding in a packed New Jersey federal courtroom.
Prosecutors, who will ask that bail be denied, allege the two suspects conspired to commit an act of international terrorism by waging “violent jihad” through Al Shabaab, a Somali youth movement tied to al Qaeda.
If convicted, they face a maximum penalty of life in prison. Lawyers for both men declined to speak with reporters.
The defendants, both bearded with thick curly hair, were shackled at the ankles and wrists. Alessa had bruises on one side of his face. Prosecutors said he resisted arrest.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, the chief federal prosecutor in Newark, called homegrown radicalization a “very real danger.”
This was one “of a number of other cases in which people who are in the United States are alleged to have become radicalized ... and have decided that what they would like to do is to engage in violent activity against Americans or against people overseas,” Fishman said.
The arrests followed a failed attempt by a Pakistani-born U.S. citizen to set off a car bomb in New York’s Times Square in May and an incident on Christmas Day in which a Nigerian man is accused of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner by setting off explosives hidden in his underwear.
Federal officials said there was no active plot and that Alessa and Almonte, who had been under surveillance since October 2006 following a tip from an acquaintance, did not pose an immediate threat.
“The charges were filed before their bags were packed and the arrest teams were waiting at the airport before they arrived,” Fishman said.
According to the complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney, an undercover New York police officer recorded several meetings with the suspects and, starting in 2009, they expressed intent to kill people abroad and possibly in the United States.
“We’ll start (killing) here, if I can’t do it over there,” prosecutors allege Alessa said in November, using an Arabic word for killing.
“I wanna, like, be the world’s worst-known terrorist,” he said, according to the complaint.
The pair discussed preparations including saving money, getting in shape, acquiring military gear and playing paintball before buying tickets to Cairo on March 20 with a July 11 return date, it said.
On January 31, Almonte said in a recorded conversation he was born and raised in the United States.
“I just want the troops to come home safely,” Almonte said, to which Alessa added: “In body bags, in caskets ... sliced up in 1,000 pieces.”
Authorities also allege the pair listened to recordings of Anwar al-Awlaki, a militant Muslim cleric wanted by U.S. authorities.
Editing by Daniel Trotta and John O'Callaghan