Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, of North Bergen, N.J., and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, of Elmwood Park, N.J., were arrested Saturday night at New York's JFK airport, where they planned to fly separately to Somalia by way of Egypt, the FBI said. The pair reportedly wanted to join al-Shabaab, which the U.S. has considered a terrorist group since 2008, and wage violent jihad.
The men appeared in federal court in Newark, N.J., today, saying only that they understood the charges. They remained in custody and have a bail hearing Thursday.
Their arrests have concerned authorities who worry that Americans who go overseas could be redirected back to commit attacks on U.S. soil.
As part of their preparations, Alessa and Almonte played recordings that promoted violent jihad, including talks by Anwar al-Awlaki, the FBI said. Al-Awlaki, a radical cleric hiding in Yemen, is believed to have inspired other recent plots, including the fatal shootings at Fort Hood, the botched Times Square car bombing attempt and the failed airline bombing on Christmas Day.
From Sept. 11, 2001, until the end of 2009, there were 46 cases of jihadist terrorist radicalization in the United States, said Brian Michael Jenkins, senior adviser to the president of the Rand Corp., and last year saw the steepest increase.
From 2002 to 2008, there were an average of four cases of homegrown terrorism a year; in 2009, the number rose to 13, and this year is on pace to match that, Jenkins said
"We're not sure if that's a spike or a trend yet," he told AOL News.
An intensifying propaganda campaign with more jihadist websites, including those in English, and the presence of American-born spokesmen for the groups, including Al-Awlaki and al-Qaida spokesman Adam Gadahn, are contributing to the rise, Jenkins said.
"The message has changed. Al-Qaida, up until 9/11, really carried out very ambitious, centrally managed operations," Jenkins said. "The terrorism campaign is now much more decentralized, with a great deal of emphasis on do-it-yourself terrorism.
"That is really pitched toward extolling the virtues of people like [Nidal Malik] Hasan, like Faisal Shahzad and calling on these individuals to do whatever they can as individuals," he said. "They're not necessarily looking for a few good men. They're looking for whatever they can get."
A look at some of the recent, high-profile homegrown terrorism suspects:
- Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent, was arrested last month, accused of trying to set off a car bomb in New York's Times Square on May 1. Shahzad, 30, who had been living in Connecticut, cooperated with authorities and said he acted alone, though arrests have been made in Pakistan.
- Najibullah Zazi, who was born in Afghanistan, lived in Pakistan and attended high school in Queens, pleaded guilty in February to conspiracy to make weapons of mass destruction, conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country and providing material support to al-Qaida. He was accused of planning to bomb busy rush-hour trains in Manhattan.
- Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist of Palestinian descent, was charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas on Nov. 5. Hasan, who was said to have traded e-mails with al-Awlaki, is charged with 13 counts of murder, accused of the worst mass shooting on a U.S. military base.
- Colleen Renee LaRose, of Montgomery, Pa., was charged in October with allegedly trying to recruit Islamic fighters to kill a Swedish cartoonist who offended Muslims with a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad. LaRose, 46, reportedly met her co-conspirators from around the world on the Internet, where she used the handle Jihad Jane.
- Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, 31, was arrested April 2, and authorities added her to the LaRose case. The women were accused of working together online to attend terrorism training camp. Paulin-Ramirez, from Colorado, was accused of going to Europe to support a violent holy war. Once there, LaRose asked Paulin-Ramirez to attend a "training camp" with her, court papers said, adding that she accepted the invitation and on the day she arrived, married a co-conspirator she knew only from online.
- Fourteen men were charged in Minnesota last year in connection with a plot aimed at trying to get young Americans to join al-Shabaab.
- James Cromitie, 44, was the alleged ringleader of a plot to bomb two synagogues in the Bronx and at the same time shoot down military planes in Newburgh, N.Y. A judge refused to dismiss the case against Cromitie and three others, who claim they were trapped by an informant. Their "weapons" were phonies supplied by undercover agents posing as militants. They were arrested in May 2009. Three of the four are U.S. citizens.
- In 2009, a former student at Georgia Tech, Syed Haris Ahmed, and Ehsanul Islam Sadequee of Georgia were convicted of supporting terrorism. Ahmed got 13 years, Sadequee got 17 years. At trial, Ahmed, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan, gave his own closing argument, talking about his Muslim faith, rather than the case. Sadequee is a Virginia native of Bangladeshi descent.
- David Coleman Headley, 49, a Chicago man, agreed to plead guilty in March of scouting out the Indian city of Mumbai before the 2008 terrorist attack that left 166 people dead and plotting to attack a Danish newspaper. Headley is the son of an American mother and Pakistani father.
- Narseal Batiste and several other young men were arrested in June 2006 in an alleged plot to bomb the Sears Tower in Chicago and a federal building in Miami. An indictment said all had pledged an oath to al-Qaida. Five were convicted, and Batiste was sentenced to 13 1/2 years in prison.