NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two New Jersey men were arrested late on Saturday at a New York airport trying to catch flights for meetings with militant groups in Somalia with the intent to kill people, authorities said on Sunday.
Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, of North Bergen, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, of Elmwood Park, were arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport as they tried to board separate flights to Egypt on their way to Somalia, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey said.
They were charged with conspiring to commit an act of international terrorism by waging “violent jihad” through Al Shabaab, a youth movement tied to al Qaeda.
Federal officials said there was no active plot and the pair, who had been under surveillance since October 2006 following a tip from an acquaintance, did not pose an immediate threat.
Alessa and Almonte are slated to appear on Monday in federal court in Newark, New Jersey.
The arrests were first reported by The Newark Star-Ledger, which said federal and local law enforcement officials had searched the homes of both men and removed papers, a computer and other materials.
According to the complaint filed by the U.S. attorney, an undercover New York Police Department (NYPD) Intelligence Division officer recorded several meetings with the suspects starting in 2009 in which 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,” Alessa allegedly said last November, using an Arabic word for killing, court papers said.
“I wanna, like, be the world’s worst-known terrorist,” he allegedly said, according to the complaint.
Alessa told his family he was going to Egypt to attend school, the complaint said.
The pair discussed preparations including saving funds, getting in physical condition — more strength meant the ability to kill more non-Muslims — acquiring military gear and apparel and engaging in 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 that he was born and raised in the United States. “I just want the troops to come home safely,” to which Alessa adds “In body bags, in a caskets ... sliced up in 1,000 pieces.”
In late April, Almonte noted U.S. troops would be in Somalia soon, which was good because it would not be fun to kill only Africans, according to the complaint.
The suspects were “committed individuals with operational intent,” said FBI Special Agent Michael Ward, citing their “planned travel overseas to link with a foreign terrorist organization.”
They had traveled to Jordan three years ago, but Almonte told the undercover officer on February 3 they were upset after being denied the opportunity to be recruited as “mujahideen fighters.”
The case was jointly pursued by the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, the NYPD and the FBI, which assisted in the arrests at the airport.
If convicted. the suspects face a maximum penalty of life in prison.
The arrests followed a failed attempt to explode a car bomb in New York’s Times Square last month and an incident on Christmas Day in which a 23-year-old Nigerian tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner by setting off explosives hidden in his underwear.
Editing by Philip Barbara