Al Qaeda flag
Al Qaeda flagIsrael news photo: public domain

The sentencing phase has begun in a New Jersey courtroom for one of two men convicted on a myriad of charges, including conspiracy to join a foreign terrorist organization – Al-Shabaab, linked to Al Qaeda.

Al Shabaab, based in Somalia, was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government in 2008. Some analysts believe the group recruits foreigners primarily for use as fighters in its civil war, rather than for the purpose of jihad.     

Mohamed Alessa of North Bergen, faced a judge on Monday in Newark’s federal courthouse after having pleaded guilty to the charges in March 2011. He could face life in prison and fines of up to $250,000, along with co-conspirator Carlos “Omar” Almonte, a resident of Elmwood Park. 

The two were arrested in June 2010 in what has come to be known as “Operation Arabian Knight” as they were boarding separate flights to Egypt at JFK airport in New York City. Both were charged with conspiring to kill, main and kidnap people outside the United States. 

Alessa was born in the United States to parents from Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. A dual Jordanian-U.S. citizen, he was 20 years old at the time of his arrest. When Al Qaeda terrorists attacked New York’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Alessa’s family showed its political preferences by hanging out a Palestinian flag, while the rest of the neighbors displayed American flags. At the time a young boy, Alessa later told his friends that Osama Bin Laden was a “hero” to his family, and that someday he wanted to grow up to be a “martyr.”  As a teen, he joined a gang that called itself the P.L.O., and alternatively, the “Arabian Knights.”

Throughout his teenage years, in fact, Alessa was a high-profile personality, much of the time coming to the attention of security officials due to “radicalized behavior” that was deemed to be “violent” and “threatening.” Eventually the Department of Homeland Security was alerted as well.

According to court documents quoted by The Washington Post, Alessa said, “My soul cannot rest until I shed blood. I wanna, like, be the world’s [best] known terrorist.”

Almonte came with his family as an immigrant to the U.S. at age 5, born in Santiago in the Dominican Republic. He too is a dual national, with Dominican-U.S. citizenship.

At the time of his arrest, Almonte was 24 years old, and had converted from Christianity to Islam some six years prior, renaming himself “Omar” and meeting Alessa one year later, in 2005. By March 2007, the FBI had searched his computer with his permission, and found documents advocating jihad. In 2008, he posted a photo of himself on his Facebook page holding a large poster that read, “Death to all Juice” (sic), while standing at the Israel Day Parade in New York City.

Both men were followers of the New York-based radical Islamist group, the Islamic Thinkers Society (ITS), an offshoot of Al Muhajiroun, a pro-Al Qaeda group in Britain. They also were reportedly deeply inspired by American-born Muslim radical cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, who promoted jihad and Al-Shabaab.

Court papers quoted them talking about the best ways to chop off victims’ heads.