NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Two New Jersey men were each sentenced to at least 20 years in prison Monday after pleading guilty to conspiring to join an armed Islamic group in Somalia with ties to al-Qaida.
Mohamed Alessa, of North Bergen, was given a 22-year sentence, and Carlos Almonte, of Elmwood Park, was given a 20-year prison term.
Attorneys for 23-year-old Alessa and the 27-year-old Almonte had sought to portray the men, who were teenagers when they came to the attention of law enforcement, as troubled youths spurred to radicalism under the influence of a man who was actually an undercover officer working for the New York City Police Department.
Federal prosecutors sought to counter that portrayal by arguing the two were dangerous, calculating, would-be terrorists bent on joining an overseas organization in order to kill "disbelievers in Islam." Prosecutors said the two had carried videos on their cellphones of American soldiers being beheaded, and considered Maj. Nidal Hasan, the alleged perpetrator of the worst mass shooting on a U.S. military installation at Fort Hood, in Texas, a role model.
"Your honor, if you send a message that homegrown violent extremism will be met with serious consequences, it will be less likely that others will engage in this crime," Asst. U.S. Attorney L. Judson Welle argued before U.S. District Judge Dickinson Debevoise, who oversaw the case in federal court in Newark.
Attorney Stanley L. Cohen, representing Alessa, said his client's 22-year sentence was far too harsh for an individual Cohen described as so immature that he had asked the undercover informant if he could take his beloved pet cat Princess with him to Egypt and suggested the trio might go nightclubbing and surfing while there.
Cohen questioned why his client, who was arrested with Almonte in June 2010 before they could board separate planes to Egypt at New York's Kennedy Airport, received a sentence two years longer than American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh, and five years longer than convicted terrorism plotter Jose Padilla.
"I think the sentence is excessive and unwarranted," Cohen said. "Although I think the judge is very diligent, I think these cases are very difficult, because we live in times when people are frightened and scared, and people have lost the ability to differentiate between reality and perception, and it's very difficult to jump over that hurdle."
Alessa and Almonte, turning frequently to look at their respective family members who packed the courtroom, each spoke before their sentencing. Their statements were similar, emphasizing the remorse for the pain they had caused their families, and arguing they had been misguided, troubled young people who never really intended harm.
"I've learned it's not a game. I have no one to blame but myself. My family is paying the price now." Alessa said, apologizing profusely for the "anguish" and "shame" he had brought on his mother and father, who were in the courtroom, and who could be heard wailing and shouting in the courtroom hallway following the sentencing.
He spoke of being a once-troubled teenager prone to outbursts of anger that he didn't understand, and spoke of his longing to be given a second chance.
"After all, I only consider myself a Jersey boy," he added.
Almonte, known as Omar, echoed Alessa's statement of being an isolated, lonely teenager who had looked up to the informant who had seemingly taken the pair under his wing, become their friend, and urged them to channel their anger into joining militant groups overseas.
Both Cohen and Almonte's attorney, James Patton, argued it was the undercover NYPD officer who had repeatedly insisted the two get passports and buy tickets to Egypt, from where they allegedly would move on to Somalia.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Welle countered with transcripts of audio tapes made by the informant, purporting to show Alessa and Almonte relishing the thought of getting the chance to kill American soldiers overseas. The two men viewed multiple online videos, including some they kept on their cellphones that showed U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan under sniper attacks, ambushes, bomb attacks, executions and beheadings, according to Welle.
"I like watching (disbelievers) get slaughtered," Almonte allegedly said, according to a transcript of an undercover tape shown in court.
Alessa and Almonte each pleaded guilty in 2011 to a charge of conspiring within the United States to murder individuals outside the U.S. by trying to join al-Shabab, a designated terrorist organization.
The attorneys said they would review the judge's lengthy sentencing memorandum, but that appeals were unlikely because of the terms of the defendant's plea agreements.
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