Two New Jersey men were arrested at John F. Kennedy Airport on Saturday as they tried to leave the U.S. to join an al-Qaida-linked group in Somalia, according to the Justice Department.
Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 26, were arrested Saturday before they could board separate flights to Egypt and then continue on to Somalia, federal officials in New Jersey and the New York Police Department said in a news release.
The investigation of the pair began more than four years ago when law enforcement received a tip that the two were allegedly growing more interested in radical Islam.
During the lengthy investigation, an NYPD undercover officer recorded conversations with the men, in which they spoke about jihad against Americans.
"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."
They allegedly talked about various ways to attack Americans and other non-Muslims both in the U.S. and abroad. They eventually decided to join al-Shabab -- an Islamic militia in Somalia linked to al-Qaida -- so they could train for battle. Al-Shabab is the same group that recruited more than two dozen young Somalis from the Minneapolis area to fight in Somalia over the past two years. It was designated by the U.S. as a terrorist group in 2008.
Investigators "remain concerned that once they reach their foreign destinations, they may be redirected against targets back home, as we've seen in the past," New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said in a statement. "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."
Alessa, of North Bergen, N.J., and Almonte, of Elmwood Park, N.J., both American citizens, face charges of conspiring to kill, maim and kidnap persons outside the United States.
Teams of state and federal law enforcement agents who have been investigating Alessa and Almonte since 2006 took them into custody, authorities said. They are scheduled to appear Monday in federal court in Newark.
Officials said the two men had planned their trip to Somalia for several months, saving thousands of dollars, undergoing tactical training and test runs at paintball fields to condition themselves physically, and acquiring equipment and clothing they could use when they joined al-Shabab in Somalia. 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 men were not planning an imminent attack in the New York-New Jersey area.
A neighbor of Alessa's, Helen Gonyou, said Alessa was attending school and lived with his parents, but that she had not seen him in a while. They are good neighbors, she said, adding that she regularly exchanged pleasantries with Alessa's father.
She cautioned against prejudgment and called the charges an "unfortunate set of circumstances.”
"I just have to hope that if the case is true, they caught them before they could do bodily harm to anyone," she said.
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.
Somalia has welcomed the arrest. "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.
The arrests follow two failed terrorist attacks in the U.S. in recent months: an alleged attempted car bombing in Times Square by Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad last month; and the alleged attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.