NJ terror suspects plead guilty

AP News
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Posted: Mar 03, 2011 4:35 PM
NJ terror suspects plead guilty

Two New Jersey men pleaded guilty Thursday to charges that they conspired to join an al-Qaida-affiliated group overseas with the purpose of killing those who did not agree with their extremist ideology.

Mohamed Alessa and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, known as Omar, entered into a packaged plea deal in a Newark federal courtroom Thursday.

They each pleaded guilty to an information count charging them with conspiring within the United States to murder individuals outside the U.S. by trying to join al-Shabab, a designated terrorist organization.

The two were arrested in June at New York's Kennedy Airport as they prepared to board separate planes to Egypt. From there, the men admitted Thursday, they had planned to travel to Somalia to seek terror training from al-Qaida-affiliated jihadists. The men had no contact with Somali terrorists but hoped they would be accepted by a terrorist group, according to officials and court documents.

The 21-year-old Alessa of North Bergen was born in the United States and is the son of Palestinian immigrants. Twenty-four-year-old Almonte of Elmwood Park is a naturalized citizen who was born in the Dominican Republic. Both are Muslim.

The men, both with short dark hair and long beards, were lead into the courtroom in handcuffs and prison scrubs. Alessa smiled at family members, including his parents, who were seated in the courtroom. They took turns entering their pleas alongside their lawyers, and each man answered a series of questions from U.S. District Judge Dickinson Debevoise in a clear, loud voice.

The charge each pleaded to could carry up to life in prison, but they face 15 to 30 years under the terms of the plea agreement. Sentencing, which was tentatively scheduled for June 20, is up to the discretion of the judge. The men remain in custody at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.

Alessa's father and mother exited the courtroom without commenting. A man, who declined to give his name but escorted the parents after giving Alessa's father a long hug, said; "they don't wish to comment at this time, it's a sad day for them."

School officials, law enforcement authorities and court records have painted a picture of two as trouble-prone young men.

Officials at several northern New Jersey schools described Alessa as a disruptive and violent youth who ultimately had to be taught separately from other students and with a security guard present. Almonte's criminal record includes arrests for aggravated assault and weapons possession.

While court documents seek to portray the men as deeply committed to terrorism, their training was apparently scattershot. They lifted weights, hiked in the snow at a local park, bought military-style pants and water bottles, played paintball and violent video games and watched terrorist videos online.

Law enforcement became aware of the men in the fall of 2006, after receiving a tip they had been watching lectures by radical Muslim clerics online. An undercover officer from the NYPD _ who had posed as a devout Muslim and circulated among other men with radical leanings in the New York City area _ met the suspects in 2009 and won their trust, authorities said. He got close enough to them to secretly record their radical rants about fighting a holy war here and abroad.

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said his department, who the informant works for, had worked closely with law enforcement officials in New Jersey on the case.

"This case served as another reminder that we must remain vigilant not only against terrorist organizations and their affiliates, but individuals _ including American citizens _ who identify with terrorist groups and seek to act on their behalf," Kelly said, adding that one of the defendants had been observed saying he hoped he would be sent back to the U.S. to launch attacks there.

Alessa's lawyer, Stanley Cohen, said his client was more a misguided youth who talked tough, than a hardened militant.

He emphasized that Alessa had only been a teenager when the monitoring by law enforcement had started.

"The overt acts attributed to my client _ he was just 16 years-old," Cohen said. "Especially when the headlines say: 'Terrorists plead guilty to international Jihadi plot;' these were kids, and all of us, with nieces and nephews know, kids say and do things when they're young."

Almonte's lawyer, James Patton, said it was a difficult day for his client.

U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said the pair had been headed down "a deadly path" and said the charges the men pleaded to shouldn't be downplayed just because they were never carried out.

"No one was hurt _ yet," Fishman said. "I don't think the measure of success should be whether someone is hurt."

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Associated Press Writer Colleen Long in New York contributed to this report.