Two New Jersey men were arrested late Saturday at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York where they were about to board separate flights to Egypt and later join forces with the terrorist group Al Shabaab in Somalia to kill American troops.
The only official announcement of the arrests came from Jose Lozano, a spokesman for the New Jersey state Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness and U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Rebekah Carmichael. Both statements said "the arrests do not relate to any known immediate threat to the public or active plot against the United States."
Scheduled to be arraigned Monday at the federal court in Newark, the two were identified as Mohamed Hamoud Alessa, 20, of North Bergen, and Carlos Eduardo "Omar" Almonte, 24, of Elmwood Park, both communities in North New Jersey.
Tipped in advance by local law enforcement sources, the Newark Star-Ledger was on the scene of the two homes raided by state and federal agents and the on-line newspaper was the first to report any details of the case which it said has been under investigation since 2006.
Quoting on the scene reporters and a slew of city, state and federal law enforcement -- almost all speaking anonymously -- the Star-Ledger filed this report:
Operation Arabian Knight.was infiltrated by a New York City undercover cop who provided information the two men planned to join forces with Al Shabaab which has direct ties to Osama bin Laden. FBI agents waited at JFK until the two men began the process of boarding their flights so be certain they planned to carry out their mission which they had boasted to friends and family.
According to property records, Alessa’s parents rented the top floor of their house amid a quiet row of middle-class homes. But the reporter assigned to the Almonte home in Elmwood Park described a surreal incident in which an older man believe to be Almonte's father was seen embracing and talking amicably to FBI agents as if they knew each other.
Neither Alessa nor Almonte is married. Both are American citizens, said the anonymous officials. Agents were seen carrying boxes of evidence and computers from both homes.
The investigation, again according to the Star-Ledger, revealed Alessa and Almonte were growing more militant in the past year buying and listening to jihadist tapes produced by al Qaeda. They believe the pair were being recruited for the Somalia mission.
"We hope this will lead to a spider web of arrests," said one official briefed on the case.
By early Saturday morning, agents had worked out a strategy of following the men to the airport and tracking them through their security check-in, officials said. After that, they planned to quietly get the men out of public view so their arrests could not be seen by any associates who might have been following them. The men were allowed to make it to the jetway boarding ramps before agents took them into custody.
The arrests and planning were coordinated by the Joint Terrorism Task Force, a multi-agency group that includes agents of the FBI, state homeland security office, New York Police Department, Port Authority police and an assortment of federal security agencies.
The investigation began as two separate probes after the FBI and New Jersey homeland security detectives received individual tips about the men, officials said.
In the months leading up to their planned travel, authorities said, Alessa and Almonte saved thousands of dollars, conditioned themselves physically through tactical training and dry runs at paintball fields and acquired gear and apparel to be used once they joined up with al Shabaab in Somalia. The men boasted that they wanted to wage holy war against the United States both at home and overseas, said investigators.
Concluded the Star-Ledger report:
According to a Council on Foreign Relations briefing, al Shabaab’s leader released a video in September 2008 pledging allegiance to bin Laden and calling for Muslim youth to come to Somalia. In February 2009, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second-in-command, released a video that began by praising al Shabaab’s seizure of the Somali town of Baidoa. The group will "engage in Jihad against the American-made government in the same way they engaged in Jihad against the Ethiopians and the warlords before them," Zawahiri said.
If the Newark Star-Ledger account is accurate, these arrests, although small potatoes compared to others, is another positive victory for the Obama administration which is not being given full credit for its successes.
Al-Qaeda's number three leader and Afghan operations chief, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, is the latest leader killed. Yazid, also known as Sheikh Said al-Masri, died along with his wife and three children, Islamist websites said, quoting a statement from al-Qaeda. U.S. officials say they believe he was killed recently in the tribal areas of Pakistan in an American drone attack. On the domestic front, the government successfully stopped a cell operating in Minnesota last year and apparently a similar one now in New Jersey.