By David Jones
NEWARK, New Jersey (Reuters) - Two New Jersey men were sentenced in federal court on Monday to spend at least two decades in prison for conspiring to join the al Qaeda-linked militant group al Shabaab and wage a holy war against non-Muslims.
Mohamed Alessa, 23, and Carlos Almonte, 27, were arrested in June 2010 at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport as they were trying to board flights to Egypt, authorities said.
The two men had traveled to Jordan in 2007 to inquire about joining the organization, saved thousands of dollars, practiced tactical maneuvers with paintball guns and acquired knives and night vision equipment, federal prosecutors said.
They bought airline tickets to Egypt, with the intent of traveling on to join the group in Somalia, prosecutors said.
The U.S. State Department considers al Shabaab a foreign terrorist organization.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation got a tip about the two men in 2006, and their conversations were secretly recorded the New York Police Department, prosecutors said.
They pleaded guilty to conspiring to murder persons outside the United States on behalf of al Shabaab. Almonte is from Elmwood Park, New Jersey, and Alessa is from North Bergen, New Jersey.
U.S. District Judge Dickinson Debevoise in Newark sentenced Alessa to 22 years in federal prison and Almonte to 20 years in an all-day hearing in Newark.
At the sentencing, a woman sobbed and shouted, "It is not fair. No justice in this country."
As court officials threatened to remove her, she shouted: "It's not your son!"
"Alessa and Almonte wanted to join terrorists who shared their violent, extremist ideology so they could murder those who did not," said U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman in a statement following the sentencing. "We need not speculate about their intentions: their own words confirm the deadly mission for which they trained, planned and attempted to embark."
They had faced the possibility of more than 30 years in prison apiece, but the sentences were reached in a plea agreement with prosecutors.
Attorney James Patton, representing Almonte, said afterward that his client had been led down the wrong path.
"I think he was a lost soul," Patton said
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Bob Burgdorfer)