2 NJ terrorism suspects had history of problems with school, law enforcement authorities

By Samantha Henry, AP
Tuesday, June 8, 2010

2 NJ terror suspects had brushes with authority

NORTH BERGEN, N.J. — Two terrorism suspects arrested at an airport over the weekend ran afoul of school officials and law enforcement over the last several years, with one considered so disruptive that he was removed from school and taught privately with a security guard present.

Mohamed Mahmood Alessa was placed on “home instruction” three months after transferring from an Islamic high school in 2004, North Bergen High School spokesman Paul Swibinski said.

Swibinski declined to say what made officials consider Alessa to be dangerous, but said it was not a specific incident or physical altercation, but more a pattern of behavior.

“School officials were very concerned about having him in the building,” Swibinski said. “They were concerned for the safety of the other students and the staff.”

Authorities say Alessa, 20, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, tried to fly out of New York’s Kennedy Airport on Saturday in hopes of getting terrorism training in Somalia.

Alessa, who was born in the United States, is the son of Palestinian immigrants. Almonte is a naturalized citizen who was born in the Dominican Republic. Both are Muslim.

The two made their first federal court appearance Monday in Newark, and both requested court-appointed attorneys.

Almonte was arrested about a year ago and charged with aggravated assault for allegedly hitting someone on the back of the head with a glass picture frame in his hometown of Elmwood Park. The charge was dismissed in the fall, according to court records.

In 2004, he was arrested for possession of a knife on school property, assault and underage drinking; court records reflect that he was fined $500 for the drinking charge and the other charges were dismissed.

Alessa attended ninth grade at the Al-Huda School, a private Islamic school in Paterson, a city about 15 miles from Manhattan that is the heart of New Jersey’s diverse Arab-American community.

Al-Huda issued a statement saying they were “shocked and saddened by the allegations” against Alessa. “We strive to educate our children to be successful and to be good citizens,” the school said in a statement.

Alessa was very violent and his family told educators that they were seeking professional help for him, said a former teacher at the school who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, citing Alessa’s privacy.

Alessa transferred to North Bergen High School in December 2004, and Al-Huda officials said they had no further contact with him.

By February 2005, he had been placed on home instruction, Swibinski said. Teachers were so concerned about Alessa’s behavior, Swibinski said, that they refused to work with him at his home, instead holding classes at a public library with a school security guard present.

In September 2005, Alessa transferred to KAS Prep, an alternative high school in North Bergen run by the Hudson County School of Technology, according to Swibinski. Alessa was there for one semester, and school officials had “serious security concerns” with him there, Swibinski said.

Alessa returned to North Bergen High School in March 2006 and was immediately placed on home instruction again.

In October 2007, an Islamic school in East Orange requested Alessa’s records, according to Swibinski.

In February 2007, school records show he withdrew from the school system and moved to Jordan, according to Swibinski. New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said Sunday that Alessa and Almonte traveled to Jordan to try to get into Iraq, only to be rejected by jihadists. Jordanian security and other government officials said they have no record of either man being in the country.

Law enforcement became aware of Alessa and Almonte in the fall of 2006, when the FBI received a tip through its website, according to a criminal complaint. Some family members cooperated with investigators, authorities said.

Swibinski said the North Bergen school system had been in contact with Homeland Security and local law enforcement officials about Alessa while he was a student.

“In retrospect, that was clearly the right thing to do,” Swibinski said.

Investigators say Alessa and Almonte intended to head to Somalia to seek terror training from al-Qaida-affiliated jihadists and to unleash attacks against fellow Americans.

The men had no contact with Somali terrorists, according to officials and court documents, and their planned trip to Somalia amounted to a leap of faith that they would be accepted by a terrorist group.

Alessa and Almonte are being held without bail pending a detention hearing Thursday. If convicted, they could face life in prison.

Associated Press writers David Porter in Newark, N.J., and Jamal J. Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

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