*** Counter culture syndrome? MS ***
NORTH BERGEN, N.J. — One was a spoiled child so prone to fits of rage — fights, screamed insults, threats — that his parents began taking him to psychiatrists at age 6 and medicating him in a vain struggle to control his moods. By their count, his short fuse and incendiary tongue forced him to change schools no fewer than 10 times.
The other was arrested three times in less than four months for petty crimes, and seemed like an aimless youth — until he developed a passion for a strict version of Islam that shocked and alienated his Dominican family. Within a few years, he was posting extremist views on the Internet and assailing the United States while predicting its downfall.
Their stories began like many others: troubled teenagers who scare and mystify their neighbors; run-ins with the police while still in high school; parents who cannot compete with the sense of belonging or purpose their boys find elsewhere.
“Of course we tried everything we could,” said Nadia Alessa, mother of Mohamed M. Alessa, the one so given to angry outbursts. “We couldn’t just keep him at home.”
The next chapter in such tales often charts a descent into drugs or gangs, but Mr. Alessa, 20, and Carlos E. Almonte, 24, who both grew up in the New Jersey suburbs, apparently had other plans. They were arrested Saturday as they prepared to fly separately to Egypt — and, the authorities say, to join a militant group in Somalia and kill non-Muslims.
How they went from troublemakers to terrorism suspects may never be understood. But conversations with many people who have known them — including the first interviews given by Mr. Alessa’s parents since the arrest — make clear that both men were struggling for years, constantly at odds with authority and their immigrant parents. Law enforcement officials had been keeping tabs on them for nearly four years.
Many of their peers dismissed them as hapless blowhards, more pathetic than perilous; friends said they liked to play Ping-Pong, or go into Manhattan and hang out at a halal restaurant. Yet there they are, in transcripts of secretly recorded conversations, talking about shooting and beheading people, and sending American troops home “sliced up in 1,000 pieces.”
Mr. Alessa’s parents, Palestinian immigrants, are Muslim, but Ms. Alessa was at a loss to explain her only son’s recent transformation. She recalled asking why he was growing a beard: “He said real men grow their beards.”
‘Now Everyone Hates Us’
After years of building a life in the United States — an apartment in North Bergen, a deli in nearby Bergen County where Mr. Alessa’s father, Mahmood, is quick to extend credit to customers, who call him “Pops” — the parents now see it all endangered by a son they do not understand.
“Sixteen years we’ve lived on that street,” Ms. Alessa said. “Everyone loved us. Now everyone hates us.”
A neighbor who has known Mohamed most of his life, Wilmer Precilla, said the young man alternated between craving confrontation and acceptance, making derogatory remarks about Hispanics in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood, then trying unsuccessfully to join a Dominican gang, Patria. “He was always trying to be more gangster than everyone else,” Mr. Precilla said.
Family friends watched Mohamed scream at his mother, smash up his father’s car and, in anger, knock the food off a shelf in the deli. When his shaken parents tried to take him to therapists, he screamed, “I’m not crazy.” At times he took medication for anger management, but about three years ago, his mother said, he stopped taking it and stopped seeing therapists.
Mr. Alessa’s friends, who knew his temper, told him he needed medical help — an idea he rejected. His parents gave him the latest clothes and cellphones, friends and neighbors recalled. One said he acted like a typical “American rich kid,” even though his parents were not wealthy.
“He was a spoiled kid,” Ms. Alessa conceded. “He acted like a teenager. He thought he was a king.”
She said Mohamed attended the local public elementary school, two Catholic grade schools, a boarding school in Connecticut, a school for troubled youth, three Muslim schools and two public high schools, repeatedly getting into trouble for fighting or mouthing off.
At the two public high schools, North Bergen and KAS Prep, Mr. Alessa made an escalating series of threats against students and staff members through 2005 and 2006, saying that he would blow up the school, mutilate gays and punish women who were not subordinate to men, according to officials granted anonymity to discuss confidential matters. Both schools alerted the Department of Homeland Security.
As a 10th grader at North Bergen High, he had to receive his lessons at a local public library under the eye of a security guard, said Paul Swibinski, a school spokesman, because “administrators felt that his presence in school posed a safety threat to other students and staff.”
In those years, neighbors say, the police were called to the Alessa home several times. The North Bergen police declined to give details, noting that juvenile records were not public, but Lt. Frank Cannella said: “He was known to us, I can tell you that much.”
The Suspects Meet
Around 2005, when he was 14 or 15, Mr. Alessa met Mr. Almonte, who lived in Elmwood Park, but was spending much of his time in North Bergen, 10 miles away. The two hung out with a group of young men who called themselves the PLO. Mr. Alessa was not particularly religious then, but Mr. Almonte, a recent convert to Islam, was becoming more so.
Growing up, Carlos Almonte had a less turbulent childhood. But by the time he was 18, he, too, was running afoul of the law.
In May 2004, with a month left in his senior year at Elmwood Park Memorial High School, Mr. Almonte, a naturalized citizen, was arrested for taking a knife to campus. That August, he was arrested for punching a youth in the parking lot of a supermarket. Two weeks later, he was caught drinking beer in a park.
It was around then, family friends say, that Mr. Almonte turned to Islam. He told Priscilla Caicedo, a young woman he met last year, that his interest began when he heard someone preaching at the Garden State Plaza mall in Paramus. He visited mosques in Paterson and Union City, and called himself Omar.
Mr. Almonte’s conversion, his compulsion to proselytize, and his friendship with Mr. Alessa all alienated his family, though he continued to live with them. The friction culminated in their living room on May 23, 2009, when, according to a police report, Mr. Almonte began preaching about Islam to his younger brother, Elvin, who demurred, and “Carlos became angry and they both began fighting.”
Their mother tried to separate them and Elvin bit her arm, thinking it was his brother’s. Carlos then struck Elvin in the back of the head with a picture frame.
One young man who befriended both suspects said that Mr. Almonte was more easygoing and supportive than Mr. Alessa, and that he liked to read and use computers. Another friend, Martin Robert, said that sometimes while playing Ping-Pong and basketball, Mr. Almonte would try to turn the conversation to Islam but would not insist. “He seemed like a nice, peaceful guy,” Mr. Robert said.
Another student who knew them casually, Mostafa Higazi, said the pair were “very oriented to politics.” He called Mr. Alessa “really a talker, just bragging,” while Mr. Almonte was quiet. He said that he did not recall specific things Mr. Alessa said, but that none of it resembled the bloody talk in the criminal complaint.
Ms. Caicedo met Mr. Almonte more than a year ago when she took her computer for repairs to a store where he worked near his home. Even in the store, she recalled, he began proselytizing, and gave her a book on Islam, which she said she never read.
They talked and traded instant messages, and went out once, as friends, last December. He took her to a Spanish-language service at a mosque in Union City and then to dinner at T.G.I. Friday’s. Quiet and serious, he told her he wanted to find a wife who knew that her role was to stay home to cook and clean. “He was like one of those men that had to be the dominant one,” she said.
Recently, Ms. Caicedo said, he told her he was moving to North Carolina, and arranged for her to get his job at the computer store. Hours before he was arrested at Kennedy Airport, they were at the store, Mr. Almonte training her.
But others saw a darker side to the suspects and their friendship. In October 2006, the Federal Bureau of Investigation received a tip that Mr. Alessa and Mr. Almonte talked about holy war and killing non-Muslims, and law enforcement agencies began keeping a watch on them. From the start, the authorities were in touch with Mr. Almonte’s family.
“I had a good rapport with the father,” said Detective Anthony DiPasquale of Elmwood Park. “I acquired information and I passed it along to the F.B.I.”
In February 2007, while Mr. Alessa was a high school senior, he and Mr. Almonte traveled to Jordan; the F.B.I. says it was in the vain hope of being recruited by a militant jihadist group.
On a Facebook page started in October 2008, Mr. Almonte posted long quotations from medieval Islamic scholars and present-day radicals like Abu Qatada, considered by many countries to be a terrorist, and the jihadist cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri.
Mr. Almonte was also outraged at the treatment of Muslim prisoners accused of terrorism. He posted a comment concerning Omar Khadr, a prisoner who said he was abused by American interrogators. Mr. Khadr is charged with throwing a grenade when he was 15 that killed an American soldier in Afghanistan. Mr. Almonte wrote: “We feel for our brothers unjustly locked up even afghanistan at the time didn’t pose a threat to america for them to attack them over 2 towers but the end of them will be like the end of persia, rome, n the soviet union.”
He posted a photo of himself at a Dec. 28, 2008, protest in Manhattan, holding a sign saying “DEATH TO ALL JUICE,” with the word “ZIONIST” written faintly above “JUICE.”
Mr. Almonte dismissed the religion of American Muslims, saying, “In truth, it isn’t Islam.” He showed a particular fixation on the ideas that Muslim men should be bearded, and should hold one another’s hands.
In the last two years, Mr. Alessa, too, started lecturing about God and grew a beard. A new friend, Bassem, became a frequent companion of the two men. Friends and Mr. Alessa’s parents now believe that Bassem, who offered to put the young men up at the house he said he had in Egypt, was an undercover New York police officer who is cited in the criminal complaint, and who recorded their conversations.
“He pushed them,” Mahmood Alessa said. Ms. Alessa said Bassem “wanted to be a hero, on the backs of these stupid kids.”
Recently, Mr. Alessa told his parents he planned to go to Egypt to study Arabic; he spoke the language, but did not read or write it well.
About two weeks ago, Ms. Alessa snapped a picture of her son that she keeps on her cellphone, a reminder of a serene moment in their home. It shows Mohamed lying on a floral quilt, snuggling Princess Tuna, his cat.
He wanted to take the cat with him to Egypt, but his mother said no, and they argued. When he headed to the airport, he went instead with a big bag of candy from his parents’ deli. The F.B.I. seized the candy, his mother said.