By Bruce Shipkowski and Matt Apuzzo
ELMWOOD PARK, N.J. — The young men's intentions were sinister, investigators say: to head to Somalia to seek terror training from al-Qaida-affiliated jihadists and unleash attacks against fellow Americans.
But their preparations apparently were unsophisticated. They lifted weights, bought military-style pants, tried paintball, played violent video games and watched terrorist videos online, authorities said.
They had no known connections to terrorist groups, and their planned trip to Somalia apparently amounted to a leap of faith that they'd be embraced by the jihadists.
When the two New Jersey men tried to fly Saturday from New York's Kennedy Airport to Egypt and then continue on to Somalia, investigators who had been following them for years were waiting at their gates, according to federal officials in New Jersey and the New York Police Department.
Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, are accused of trying to join al-Shabab, which was designated by the U.S. as a terrorist group in 2008. They face charges of conspiring to kill, maim and kidnap persons outside the United States by joining al-Shabab.
Alessa and Almonte were scheduled to appear Monday in federal court in Newark.
If convicted, they could face life in prison.
Authorities say they recorded Alessa and Almonte talking about attacking Americans. Alessa allegedly said he would outdo Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, last year.
"He's not better than me. I'll do twice what he did," Alessa was recorded saying, according to court documents.
In March, Alessa was recorded telling Almonte and an undercover officer with the New York Police Department that no one else they knew in New Jersey should be included in their plan to join al-Shabab because only the three of them were "serious about their plan and were preparing for it." Court documents do not indicate that authorities had other targets in the investigation.
Law enforcement became aware of the men in the fall of 2006, after receiving a tip. Since then, during the lengthy investigation, the undercover officer recorded conversations with the men in which they spoke about jihad against Americans, court papers show.
"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."
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly on Sunday cited the "excellent work" done by the officer, who Kelly said was of Egyptian descent and in his mid-20s.
The commissioner said Alessa, of North Bergen, and Almonte, of Elmwood Park, are American citizens. Alessa was born in the United States and is of Palestinian descent. Almonte is a naturalized citizen who was born in the Dominican Republic.
The men had traveled to Jordan three years ago and tried to get into Iraq, only to be rejected by jihadists, Kelly said.
Investigators say they are among many U.S. terrorism suspects to have been inspired by two well-known U.S. citizens who have recruited terrorists through the Internet: Adam Gadahn, an al-Qaida spokesman in Pakistan, and Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical al-Qaida cleric hiding in Yemen who is believed to have helped inspire recent attacks including the Fort Hood shooting, the Times Square bombing attempt and the failed Christmas Day airline bombing.
Both have made public calls for smaller, single acts of terrorism and court documents show Alessa and Almonte appearing to be inspired by that idea.
No one answered the door at Almonte's house and the blinds were drawn. A man who said he was Almonte's father walked into the home Sunday with another man.
"I'm very confused by all this," he said before he went inside. "I just don't understand it."
Alessa lived with his parents in the densely populated New York suburb of North Bergen, said Hemant Shah, the family's landlord. Alessa was attending Bergen County Community College, Shah said.
Shah said he often saw Alessa with a man who went by "Omar" and a third man he believes may have been the undercover officer.
Shah checked on Alessa's parents Sunday and said they didn't want to talk to reporters.
"His parents, they were trying to put him in the right direction," he said.
While court documents paint a picture of two men deeply committed to terrorism, their preparations were apparently scattershot. The only weapons they possessed were two folding knives Alessa said he would use to kill police if they tried to get near him: "I'm-a cut them in half with it, even if I die," he said, according to court documents.
Alessa and Almonte had planned their trip to Somalia for several months, saving thousands of dollars, officials said. Both had bragged about wanting to wage holy war against the United States both at home and internationally, according to a criminal complaint.
Officials said the two were not planning an imminent attack in the New York-New Jersey area.
The men knew early on they had come to the attention of law enforcement.
By the end of 2006, agents had talked with Almonte and a family member, and in March 2007 the FBI conducted a consensual search of his computer, revealing documents advocating jihad against the perceived enemies of Islam, court papers show.
In November, investigators recorded Alessa telling Almonte that lots of people needed to be killed.
"My soul cannot rest until I shed blood," Alessa said, according to court documents. "I wanna, like, be the world's known terrorist."
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.
Somalia welcomed the arrests of Alessa and Almonte.
"Foreign terrorists here are an obstacle to lasting peace in Somalia. So we welcome the move and we are calling on all governments to take such steps against al-Shabab and all terrorists at large," said Sheik Abdirisaq Mohamed Qaylow, a spokesman for the Ministry of Information.
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.
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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.