* United States v. Alessa, United States v. Almonte (D.N.J. March 3, 2011) (guilty pleas in al-Shabaab conspiracy case)
This case is very interesting from the perspective of the substantive scope of federal criminal law, particularly the capacity to use conspiracy charges in circumstances where the anticipated unlawful objective is relatively distant in time and unspecific in detail. The case involves two men from New Jersey who were arrested at JFK airport last year en route to Somalia, where they had intended to join al-Shabaab. Both men pled under 18 USC 956(a), which criminalizes conspiracies to kill outside the United States. As stated in the press release below, the idea is that the men knew of and intended to partake in al-Shabaab’s activities, including in particular its use of unlawful lethal force against the Somali transitional government and African Union soldiers. From this perspective, I would say the case looks much like the civilian prosecution of Jose Padilla. In any event, the information in each case is attached, and excerpts from the press release appear below:
NEWARK, N.J. – Two New Jersey men arrested at John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport last summer pleaded guilty today to conspiring to murder individuals overseas on behalf of a foreign terrorist group operating in Somalia, U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman announced.
Mohamed Hamoud Alessa, 21, of North Bergen, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, aka “Omar,” 24, of Elmwood Park, each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to murder persons outside the United States on behalf of designated Foreign Terrorist Organization Al-Shabaab. The defendants entered their guilty pleas before U.S. District Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise in Newark federal court.
On June 5, 2010, Alessa and Almonte were taken into custody by pre-staged arrest teams as they attempted to board separate international flights at JFK International Airport. They have been held in continuous custody since their arrest by order of U.S. Magistrate Judge Madeline Cox Arleo.
According to documents filed in this case and statements made in court:
It was Alessa and Almonte’s aim to travel to a place outside of the United States and murder individuals whose beliefs and practices did not align with their extremist ideology. The defendants admitted that they planned to join Al-Shabaab, an international terrorist group based in Somalia, knowing the group was engaged in carrying out violent attacks against individuals in that country, including members of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia and African Union soldiers. As part of this campaign, Al-Shabaab has conducted military assaults, bombings, and other violent acts, and has attempted through its media operations to recruit foreigners – including Americans and other Westerners – to join its ranks.
In October 2006, the FBI received a tip concerning the defendants’ activities. As the investigation continued, a New York Police Department (NYPD) Intelligence Division undercover officer recorded numerous meetings and conversations with them, during which the defendants discussed and prepared to carry out their plan.
The defendants admitted that those preparations included: saving and pooling thousands of dollars; physically conditioning themselves by, among other things, lifting weights and running; engaging in combat simulations using paintball guns, computer software, and other items; acquiring tactical clothing, hydration systems, knives, night-vision optics, and other equipment; and purchasing airline tickets to Egypt with the intent to then travel to Somalia. They also admitted that as part of their plan, Alessa and Almonte had traveled to Jordan in February 2007 and while there, inquired about opportunities to meet with groups committed to establishing Islamic law through violence.
Additionally, Alessa and Almonte admitted that they acquired, viewed, and displayed for others audio, video, and written materials – produced by and relating to Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, and other extremist groups – which advocated, depicted, and/or sought to justify the killing of individuals who opposed them, including civilians.
The charge to which Alessa and Almonte pleaded guilty carries a statutory maximum sentence of life in prison and a $250,000 fine. Under the terms of their plea agreements, the defendants agreed not to request a sentence of less than 15 years in prison, while the government agreed not to request a sentence of more than 30 years. The defendants are scheduled to be sentenced on June 20, 2011.