Two young men, both American citizens, appeared in court on Monday for an arraignment on charges that they conspired to kill, maim and kidnap people outside of the United States. The pair was arrested on Saturday at New York's John F .Kennedy International Airport as they prepared to board separate flights to Egypt.
Mohamed Mahmood Alessa and Carlos Eduardo Almonte wore shackles as they were led into a Newark, New Jersey courtroom for their first court appearance since their arrest on Saturday night. Federal authorities say the two men, who live in New Jersey, near New York City, planned to travel to Somalia to join al-Shabab, which U.S. officials say is a terrorist group linked to al-Qaida.
The proceedings lasted about five minutes. Judge Madeline Cox Arleo explained to the two defendants that the hearing was intended to insure that they understood their rights - including the right to remain silent when questioned - and that they understood the charges against them and the possible punishment if convicted - life imprisonment. Asked whether they wanted the court to supply defense attorneys, both men answered, "Yes."
A federal prosecutor told the judge that the two men should remain in custody before their trial because they might flee and that they pose a danger to the community. The judge ordered a hearing on their detention on Thursday, followed by a preliminary hearing on June 21.
In the charges against the two men, U.S. officials say they physically trained, purchased military-style equipment and watched terrorist videos. Law enforcement officers have been following them since 2006 and an undercover New York City police officer recorded conversations with the two men, in which they spoke about jihad, or holy war, against Americans.
After the hearing, the chief federal prosecutor for New Jersey, Paul Fishman, told reporters that the two men constituted a danger despite their seeming lack of sophistication.
"Sophistication is not necessarily a measure of danger, as we have learned in lots of other cases. And I think that we would be remiss if we did not pay attention to anyone who has the intention to do what these folks ar alleged to have done, which is to seek to join a violent jihad," he said.
Fishman said that at no time was the public in immediate danger from these defendants. There was never any chance, he added, that the defendants would board their flights to Egypt.
Also speaking to the reporters gathered outside the Newark courthouse was Younus Mohammad who said he appeared at the court in support of the two defendants. He described them as "wild eyed, with aims that would have been impossible to carry out."
"I believe that they were coerced and that they were incited to make such statements. I believe that the rationality of the case being able to unfold with regard to them getting to Somalia and being able to engage in jihad is highly improbable," said Mohammad.
The court-appointed attorneys for the two men did not speak with reporters after the hearing.