The Star-Ledger (NJ)
Monday, June 07, 2010
NORTH BERGEN — The bravado was juvenile, but chilling. In a phone conversation secretly recorded by federal authorities last November, Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, the 20-year-old North Bergen man arrested Saturday night with a friend for planning to join a terrorist organization, boasted he would bring jihad to the United States if thwarted from doing so elsewhere: "They only fear you when you have a gun and when you — when you start killing them and when you — when you take their head and you go like this, and you behead it on camera. ... We’ll start killing here, if I can’t do it over there."
In conversations with neighbors, acquaintances and former classmates, a portrait of an alleged Islamic radical is beginning to emerge. Disaffected early in life, Alessa appears to have been outspoken, strident and somewhat reckless, although acquaintances also describe him, at least in his childhood years, as smart and outgoing, even ordinary.
His accomplice, 24-year-old Carlos Eduardo Almonte, was quieter, but equally ardent in his views and apparently provided much of the funding for the mission, according to the criminal complaint. He turned over more than $8,000 to an undercover federal agent who had infiltrated their circle, to be deposited into a bank account, the complaint said. In one recorded conversation, Almonte can be heard saying, "Any Muslim that gets an opportunity, or a chance, or a mere chance, or a slight chance, or even 10-percent out of 100 chance of making it there (referring to waging violent jihad abroad) should should risk it."
Federal authorities said Almonte was born in the Dominican Republic but is an American citizen who emigrated as a child. He lived in a basement apartment of his family’s modest two-story house in Elmwood Park. Answering the door late this morning, the defendant’s father, Pedro, appeared in pajama pants and white T-shirt. He had been up all night, he said, after federal authorities raided the home.
"I’m confused. I feel really bad," he said during a brief interview. "My wife is over there crying. Maybe I have to take her to the hospital."
Neighbor Dorothy Miolovic, 61, said Pedro Almonte was upset when his son chose to convert to Islam about four or five years ago. "He said, ‘I can’t believe he did that; I don’t know what to do,’" Miolovic said of the father’s reaction.
It is not clear how or when Alessa and Almonte befriended each other. Alessa either dropped out or was kicked out of North Bergen High School, said Helmant Shah, the family’s landlord.
Shah, from India, said he has known Alessa since he was 6 years old and described him as a "good kid."
Star-Ledger fileA 2002 sophomore year school yearbook photo of Carlos Almonte, one of two suspects arrested last night with alleged connections to al Qaeda."He was truly a follower of the Muslim religion," said Shah, who often saw the young man with two friends, one of whom was called "Omar" and appears to have been Almonte, who was arrested with Alessa at John F. Kennedy International Airport as they were about to board separate flights to the Mideast.
Alessa, also known as "Mike," had problems with the police, said Shah, who recalled authorities coming to the family’s apartment at least twice when Alessa was a teenager. He also claims the young man’s driver’s license was suspended and traffic summonses often arrived for him in the mail.
Alessa studied briefly at both Bergen Community College and Hudson County Community College, Shah said. Alessa’s father, Mahmood, told him 2 or 3 years ago that his son had gone to Jordan with friends to study for six months.
Reached this morning, the Alessa family declined comment.
Shah also recalled grumblings from neighbors around the time of the 9/11 attacks because of the large Palestinian flag that hung from the white wrought-iron railing of the family’s second-floor balcony.
"The parents were opposing that," Shah said, "so he took it down."
Across from the Alessa house, Loretta Trapp, 70, said she knew and liked Alessa’s father, who works in a convenience store.
Trapp worked in the World Trade Center in 1993 when a bomb killed several people, and was on the 15th floor of Tower 2 on 9/11 when the second plane hit.
"Little by little, I was getting over it," Trapp said, beginning to cry. "This is bringing it all back again."
Down the street, 19-year-old Marcos Regato said he knew Alessa when both were students at North Bergen’s Horace Mann Elementary School, and that they sometimes rode bikes together and played Nintendo.
"He was an easy going kid," Regato said. "I thought he was going to be a good kid. It’s scary."
Another friend remembered Alessa the same way: "He used to be really nice, really social," said Kristen Fernandez, who knew Alessa in high school.
In recent years, however, he changed his dress and demeanor, wearing baggy clothes and getting into trouble, she said.
When Fernandez’s mother, Julie, learned yesterday morning of Alessa’s arrest, she put her hand over her mouth. "Oh my God," she said, "My son’s in the Marine Corps ... I don’t even want to think about it."
Fernandez’s mother, Julie, said she knew and liked Alessa’s father and remembered him telling her once that his son had lost direction.
"He’s not listening, he’s getting into a lot of trouble," she recalled him saying. "I feel bad for the parents, because as a parent you teach your kids one way, and they turn out like something else."
By Julie O'Connor and Amy Ellis Nutt/The Star-Ledger
Staff writers Alexi Friedman and Rohan Mascarenhas contributed to this report.