BY MATTHEW VAN DUSEN AND PETER J. SAMPSON
NorthJersey.com | June 25, 2010
At age 6, Mohamed Alessa declared to his parents that he would someday become the first Muslim president of the United States — "President Mohamed," he would be called. Today, a 20-year-old Alessa sits in a cell at a New York detention center, charged with conspiring with his best friend, Carlos Almonte, 24, of Elmwood Park, to wage violent jihad on Americans overseas.
But even at a young age, his parents said their son suffered from the uncontrollable rages that would plague him throughout his teens and fuel run-ins with school officials and law enforcement.
In their first interview together, Mahmood and Nadia Alessa, of North Bergen, detailed their son's psychological problems, his troubled teen years and their belief that the FBI pushed two innocent young men into a terrorist mold.
"It's like they're against these two kids, they want them to be terrorists," Nadia Alessa said of federal authorities. "These kids [don't] know what's going on, they don't know anything."
They also said many of the government's claims against their son are dead wrong and that authorities have mistaken his anger problems and grandiosity for something much more serious.
They said a 2007 trip to Jordan, which the FBI believes was a failed attempt to join the insurgency in Iraq, was a chance for Mohamed Alessa to study abroad. The Alessas also said he was traveling to Egypt on June 5 to meet a 19-year-old Swedish Muslim he planned to marry, not as a way station to jihad in Somalia, as the government alleges.
The Alessas also said they did not provide the FBI with the October 2006 tip that started the government's investigation. They said their son, an animal lover who once kept 13 cats, is a misguided young man who had been monitored by the FBI since age 16 and was encouraged by an undercover agent to act like a terrorist.
This claim, which others in North Jersey's Muslim community have repeated, irks FBI officials. Michael Ward, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Newark division, said agents often consult the Muslim community and ask for help in turning young lives around. But Ward said that when troubled teens get into their 20s and go from "aspirational to operational," there is only so much that outreach can accomplish. He stressed that he was not specifically addressing the investigation into Almonte and Alessa.
"They evolved, they went deeper into the radicalization process, and I don't believe that, here at these last stages, there's anything we could've done," Ward said of the two young men.
Exodus from Kuwait
Nadia Alessa, a Palestinian from the West Bank, gave birth to her only child in July 1989 while visiting friends in North Bergen. She and her husband, an ethnic Palestinian from Jordan, then returned to Kuwait, where he owned a billboard advertising business. After Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the family was evacuated by American officials to the United States because Mohamed was a citizen.
"The United States saved my life," Mahmood Alessa said.
As a child, their son displayed "anger management" problems that a battery of psychologists and psychiatrists tried to treat. Still, he bounced in and out of almost a dozen different Catholic, Muslim, local and boarding schools, they said. In February 2005, North Bergen High School officials placed him on home instruction because he presented safety concerns for other students and staff, district spokesman Paul Swibinski said.
In August 2005, his mother said he was arrested in Jersey City for defacing a Coptic Christian church with the words "allahu akbar," which means "God is great" in Arabic. He was released without charges, she said.
He moved to the alternative school KAS Prep in September 2005 and became even more belligerent. He allegedly threatened to blow up the school, a claim Nadia Alessa said was a lie told by another student. Mahmood Alessa said his son came home and cried after fellow student told him, "you look like [al-Qaida leader Osama] bin Laden."
Officials at KAS Prep reported Mohamed Alessa's threats to the New Jersey Department of Homeland Security. In January 2006, police officers — the Alessas weren't clear on what agency — came to the modest second-floor apartment, arrested their son and put him in the Hudson County Juvenile Detention Center in Secaucus for one month for his threats.
A judge dismissed him as "a stupid kid," Nadia Alessa said, and released him.
'It's almost like a fad'
Mohamed Alessa claimed he had exclusively read the Quran while in juvenile detention and emerged a self-professed pious Muslim. He asked his mother, who does not wear traditional garb or head coverings, why she didn't cover herself.
"My son is not that religious," she said. "He like to talk, he like to show. What I think, both of them, they're having a problem. They want to be famous."
His brand of piety seemed to preclude regular attendance at mosque, and he resisted efforts by local Muslim elders to help him. Walid Bejdough, a former spokesman for the Islamic Center of Passaic County, said Mahmood Alessa asked him several years ago to counsel his son to come to mosque and stay out of trouble. Bejdough arranged to meet the young man, but Mohamed Alessa never showed up.
Mohammad Abbasi, a spokesman for the North Hudson Islamic Educational Center, said he met Mohamed Alessa for the first time at a Teaneck mosque just before he was arrested. He said he didn't come across as pious or observant but noted, "It's almost like a fad for kids … his age." Abbasi also questioned whether the FBI should have followed the young pair. Agents had come to him before about problem kids, he asked, why not with these two?
Mohamed Alessa met Carlos Almonte at the Garden State Plaza mall in 2004 or 2005, Nadia Alessa said. The younger man approached Almonte, asked for a cigarette and they became fast friends, she said. Over time, Almonte learned Arabic from Nadia Alessa's nieces, she said, but he became interested in Islam on his own.
Mohamed Alessa insisted that Almonte accompany him on a trip to Jordan in February 2007 to study at the Oxford School, an English-language institution in Amman. Almonte later told an undercover officer that the men tried to become mujahedeen in Jordan but were denied, according to court documents. Mahmood Alessa said the claim is false. His brother rented an apartment for them, took away their passports and provided food for them. The Alessas provided a report card to back their claim, but school officials could not be reached.
Mohamed Alessa trusted his friends too much and was "very susceptible to outside influences," said Mahmood Alessa's lawyer, Frank Lucianna.
Nadia Alessa said she treated Almonte like a son, but said she was leery of a series of men she believed to be undercover agents. The FBI had been aware of Mohamed Alessa since at least October 2006, and neighbors said agents had asked about him then, court documents show. One such friend was a quiet Egyptian named Basem, who started coming around the house in January, Nadia Alessa said. She said Basem would wait at the house for hours while her son showered, which she considered suspicious.
Comments by Almonte and Mohamed Alessa to Basem, an undercover New York City police officer whose real name is unknown, figure prominently in the federal criminal complaint against them.
"We'll start doing killing here, if I can't do it over there," Mohamed Alessa allegedly said in November 2009. Nadia Alessa said that if her son uttered threats against Americans, it was with Basem's encouragement. But Ward said that the FBI looks for suspects to back up their claims with actions before making an arrest.
"If we're looking at an investigation and all we have is rhetoric, it's just strong language. We're not going to take a case to fruition just on that," he said.
Mohamed Alessa told his parents that he wanted to fly to Europe to marry Siham Abedar, the young Swedish woman. They would not allow it, but he later told them that she had gone to Egypt to study and he would join her there and stay with Basem.
Nadia Alessa said that on the last night before her son and Almonte left for Egypt, Basem ate at her house and reassured them in familiar terms.
"I told him, 'I hope, Basem, you're going to be good caring for these two kids.' He said, 'Don't worry, Aunt.' "
Almonte and Mohammed Alessa were arrested on June 5 at John F. Kennedy International Airport and charged with conspiring to kill, maim and kidnap outside the United States. Mahmood Alessa said he can't sleep and has lost weight because he has been unable to contact his son since the arrest.
He and his wife have received only one communication from jail, a handwritten letter from Almonte, whom they regard as a second son. In it, he writes, "All I want is for me and Mohamed to have a decent life. I know we don't deserve this."
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