The North Bergen neighbors of a suspected terrorist said last week that he seemed normal, even though his school record suggested he was potentially a dangerous person – and even though he was arrested by federal agents last week before allegedly traveling to Somalia to join a terrorist group.
The township has been abuzz for days after Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, of North Bergen, and Carlos Almonte, 24, of Elmwood Park, were taken into custody last Saturday at JFK International Airport. Dozens of media outlets have chimed in to report on all aspects of the two men’s histories, including Alessa’s past problems at North Bergen High School. And last week, his neighbors said they were surprised.
“He was a good kid when he was younger.” – Marcos Regato
According to Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness Director Charles B. McKenna, the two men allegedly planned to take separate flights to Egypt and travel to Somalia, where they allegedly hoped to join the foreign terrorist organization Al Shabaab and wage war against any American troops stationed there.
The defendants appeared in court on Monday, June 7. U.S. Magistrate Judge Madeline Cox Arleo warned them that they faced a life sentence for allegedly conspiring to kill, maim, and kidnap persons outside of the United States.
According to a criminal complaint, an investigation of the men began in October 2006, after the FBI received a tip about the defendants. In 2009, a NYPD Intelligence Division undercover officer began to meet with them at his home in Jersey City. According to the complaint, the undercover officer said they would engage in hand-to-hand fighting tactics, discuss violent jihadist groups they wished to join, and allegedly discuss how they would kill Americans.
According to the criminal complaint, the duo had travelled to Jordan on Feb. 4, 2007, but failed to join a terrorist group. They returned to the United States, where they once again allegedly began plans for terrorism.
If you see something, say something
Apparently, observers’ tips helped the FBI start paying attention to the two men.
On Oct. 9, 2006 the FBI received a tip through their website, the complaint said.
“Every time they look across the internet all they look for is all those terrorist videos about the Islam [holy] war and where they kill U.S. soldiers and other terrible things,” the tipster wrote.
Alessa had such a troubled history in the North Bergen schools that administrators reported his behavior to Homeland Security, said Township Spokesperson Paul Swibinski. “North Bergen officials … are feeling that they did the right thing,” he said, “and I think they deserve a lot of credit.”
Alessa transferred to North Bergen High School at the end of 2004 from Al Huda High School in Paterson. He was placed on home instruction in February 2005. Instead of being taught in a classroom, he received his education at the North Bergen Library with a teacher and a security officer present, Swibinski said. Swibinski said that a security officer was assigned to Alessa because of behavioral and social skills reasons.
“His behavior was radicalized,” said Swibinski. “It was very threatening, and he was removed. School administrators wanted to remove him from school property because of their concerns for the safety of other students and also staff.”
He transferred to KAS Prep, an alternative countywide public high school program at the Hudson County Schools of Technology, in September 2005. He returned to North Bergen High School in March of 2006 and was placed on home instruction again, where he was taught once more at the library with a security officer present.
In February 2007, school records show that he moved to Jordan. In October 2007, the Islamic Center of East Orange requested and received his transcript, according to Swibinski, but it is unclear if he ever attended this school, since multiple calls were not returned in time for publication.
The criminal complaint said that the defendants allegedly prepared for their trip by purchasing camouflage clothing, lifting weights at a gym in Jersey City, watching videos online of Al-Shabaab, reading literature of terrorist leaders, and playing paintball.
“My soul cannot rest until I shed blood,” Alessa allegedly said in a conversation recorded by the NYPD undercover agent on Nov. 29, according to the criminal complaint. “I wanna, like, be the world’s known terrorist.”
The complaint said that he allegedly played a video on his cell phone for the undercover officer on Jan. 13, 2010, that depicted automatic weapons, fire, explosions and screams “…that called upon the listeners to wage violent jihad.”
In a conversation recorded on Jan. 31 of this year, Almonte said he didn’t want United States soldiers to be hurt, but for them to come home safely. Alessa allegedly replied, “In body bags, in caskets…Sliced up in 1,000 pieces cozy in the grave, in hell.” According to the complaint, Almonte agreed with Alessa and said “in caskets.”
In February, Alessa allegedly told Almonte that he would have to keep up with his exercise, since in Somalia he would only be able to lift his “Kalashnikov,” otherwise known as an AK-47.
According to the complaint, Alessa’s parents purchased a plane ticket for him to head to Egypt on June 5. After the arrest, their home was raided by FBI and NYPD officers.
Neighbor survived 9/11
Loretta Trapp, who lives across the street from the Alessa household, said last week that the whole experience had been “tiresome.” Trapp worked in the World Trade Center and survived both attacks; the bombing in 1993 and the destruction of the towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
“When I found out that he was a potential terrorist, it brought back all of the terrorism thoughts I was trying to forget,” said Trapp.
Still, Trapp said that Alessa’s father was always very kind, and that she saw less and less of Alessa as he got older.
She said her neighbors, who are of all nationalities and backgrounds, tend to get along and are cordial to one another. She said the neighborhood is largely composed of working-class people and has always been quiet.
Marcos Regato grew up with Alessa. They used to play video games at each other’s houses and play in the nearby church parking lot, he said.
“He was a good kid when he was younger,” said Regato. He said their friendship dissolved around eighth grade. He said he hadn’t even known that Alessa still lived at home until he was arrested.
At first he assumed that police were raiding a different apartment or that it was about drugs, but when he saw the FBI, he assumed it was more serious.
Luis Lainez, who lives down the street from Alessa, said that while has lived in North Bergen for 14 years, he never really knew him.
“I did remember the whole thing when 9/11 occurred,” said Lainez. “[Alessa] had his Palestinian flag out…not being very patriotic, that puts up a red flag at the end of the day.”
Press camped out
Xiomara Vera, a teacher who tutors a student on 81st Street, said that she was surprised that someone was arrested in the area. She also suspected that some neighbors might become more fearful of their neighbors because of what happened.
Mayor Nicolas Sacco, who is also the assistant superintendent of the North Bergen Board of Education, said he felt everything had been handled appropriately by officials and that Alessa’s arrest looks like an isolated incident.
“I would say it was a well-documented incident as it progressed and it ended up the way it did because people were kind of on the alert,” Sacco said. “The neighbors there may not have been, but the higher level officials, Homeland Security, FBI, they were all involved for quite some time on this case.”
Trapp said that she believed their neighborhood will soon return to normal, except for the press camped out all day and night.
“Every day you walk out and another reporter is in your face asking you a question about how you feel and how you got through 9/11 like I did,” said Trapp.
She said that while she was tired of the constant questions, there was one thing that truly bothered her: Reporters taking up all of the good parking spots on the block.
Tricia Tirella may be reached at TriciaT@hudsonreporter.com.