Two Americans who allegedly planned to kill American soldiers overseas are the latest in a wave of Americans traveling to Somalia to fight with an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group.
A criminal complaint unsealed in a New Jersey federal court on June 6, 2010, charged Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, with conspiring to kill, maim, and kidnap persons outside the United States. The men, who planned to travel to Somalia to fight with Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist organization based in Somalia, each face a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
Alessa, an American citizen of Palestinian descent, and Almonte, a naturalized U.S. citizen from the Dominican Republic, were arrested at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on June 5, 2010, as they attempted to board separate flights to Egypt. According to the affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint, the men planned to travel from Egypt to Somalia to join Al Shabaab.
Federal authorities began investigating Alessa and Almonte, a convert to Islam who goes by the name Omar, in October 2006 after receiving a tip through the FBI's Web site about the men's online activities. "All they look for is all those terrorist videos about the Islam holly [sic] war and where they kill US soldiers," the tip read, "they keep saying that Americans are their enemies, that everybody other than Islamic followers are their enemies...and they all must be killed."
An undercover officer from the New York Police Department's intelligence unit subsequently recorded numerous meetings and conversations with the men. According to the affidavit, the recordings show Alessa and Almonte discussing ways to prepare themselves to "wage violent jihad" and to kill American troops who they thought would soon be deployed to Somalia to help fight Al Shabaab. "My soul cannot rest until I shed blood," Alessa said in November 2009 before threatening to "start doing killing here" if he and Almonte fail to join the terrorist group overseas.
Alessa and Almonte allegedly engaged in paramilitary training by shooting paintball guns and practicing other attack techniques, including hand-to-hand fighting tactics and shooting and crawling positions. Additionally, the men physically conditioned themselves by hiking in snow and mud and by lifting weights. The affidavit also alleged that Alessa and Almonte procured military gear and engaged in "simulated combat" using first-person-shooter computer software, which allows users to employ a variety of realistic weapons and simulate combat experiences from the perspective of a soldier.
The affidavit further outlined Alessa's and Almonte's extensive use of the Internet to view various documents and recordings that promoted "violent jihad," including documents authored by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's second-in-command. The men also allegedly watched videos of Al Shabaab fighters in Somalia and other videos depicting attacks on uniformed personnel in Iraq.
Alessa and Almonte also watched video and audio recordings by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Muslim cleric living in Yemen who targets English-speaking Muslim audiences with radical online lectures that encourage attacks against the West and non-Muslims. In May 2010, for example, Alessa and Almonte watched a video interview in which al-Awlaki warned of future attacks against Americans both in the U.S. and abroad. "Oh America, if you attack us, we will attack you, and if you kill us, we will kill you... These American soldiers heading to Afghanistan and Iraq will be killed. We will kill them if we can, there in Fort Hood, or we will kill them in Afghanistan and Iraq."
Alessa and Almonte also listened to another al-Awlaki sermon entitled, "Constants on the Path of Jihad." In the lecture, which has been posted on several Web sites commonly used by Muslim extremists and is based on the writings of Yousef al-Ayyiri, the founder of Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, al-Awlaki says, "Jihad will also carry on until the Day of Judgment since we are told to wipe out kufr [non-Muslims] from the world."
Al-Awlaki has been linked to several other accused terrorists who have carried out attacks against the U.S., including Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged gunman who killed 13 people at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas in November 2009. In the weeks following the shooting at Fort Hood, Alessa allegedly threatened to "do twice what he [Hasan] did."
According to the affidavit, Alessa and Almonte were also influenced by several other American-born Muslim ideologues who have encouraged attacks and provided ideological motivation for engaging in terrorist activities. In March 2010, the men viewed an Al Qaeda video in which Adam Yahiye Gadahn, an American Muslim convert from California who joined Al Qaeda in the late 1990s, encouraged followers to carry out attacks against high-value targets in America and the West to "further our global agenda and long-range strategic objectives." The men also watched videos featuring Omar Hammami, a Muslim convert from Alabama who has appeared in a number of online videos urging Americans men "to come and live the life of a mujahid [Muslim warrior]" in Somalia and join Al Shabaab.
In addition to their online activity, both Alessa and Almonte attended a number of events held by the Islamic Thinkers Society (ITS) and Revolution Muslim (RM), New York-based groups that justify terrorist attacks and other forms of violence in order to create a global Islamic state. At one of the protests, on May 23, 2010, against the Israeli Day Parade in New York, Alessa led a chant with the anti-Jewish slogan, "Khaibar, Khaibar ya Yahud, jaish Muhammad sawfa ya'ud," evoking the Quran's account of a battle between the Prophet Muhammad and the Jews of the town of Khaibar, which resulted in the subjugation of the Jews of Arabia.
Alessa also attended ITS and RM rallies in Washington, D.C. in March 2010, where he appeared in videos standing next to emerging RM leader Zachary Chesser, an online blogger who has distributed jihadist materials and promoted violence against non-Muslims through a variety of online platforms. Chesser has since been arrested and charged for attempting to join Al Shabaab in Somalia.
In addition, Almonte posted a picture on his Facebook profile of himself at another anti-Israel rally in December 2008, attended by members of ITS and RM, where he is carrying a sign that reads, "Death to All (zionist) Juice."
Alessa and Almonte had previously traveled to Jordan and attempted to cross the border into Iraq to join terrorist groups, according to New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. Almonte later told the undercover police officer that he and Alessa sought unsuccessfully to become "mujahideen," or Muslim warriors, when they traveled to Jordan in February 2007.
In September 2010, New Jersey resident Mohamed Osman, 19, pleaded guilty to lying to federal authorities investigating Alessa and Almonte. When questioned by federal authorities three months earlier, Osman denied knowing about Alessa and Almonte's plans to travel to Somalia to fight against government and multinational peacekeeping forces.