LOS ANGELES — Three California men excited at the prospect of training in Afghanistan to become terrorists prepared, authorities say, by simulating combat with paintball rifles, wiping their Facebook profiles of any Islamic references and concocting cover stories.
Just two days before they were going to board a plane bound for Istanbul — and then onto Afghanistan — FBI agents thwarted plans that officials said included killing Americans and bombing U.S. military bases overseas.
The arrests last week in the U.S. and of the man said to be the ringleader, 34-year-old American Sohiel Omar Kabir, in Afghanistan was laid out in a 77-page affidavit, which included references to the group’s online video conversations and audio recordings.
While authorities don’t believe there were any plans for an attack in the U.S., two of the men arrested told a confidential FBI informant they would consider American jihad, according to the court documents unsealed in federal court Monday.
The arrests are the latest in a series of cases where U.S. residents were targeted to become terrorists. Last month, a man was convicted of helping send young men to Somalia to join the al-Qaida-linked terrorist group al-Shabab.
Along with Kabir, Ralph Deleon, Miguel Alejandro Santana Vidriales and Arifeen David Gojali are facing charges of providing material support to terrorists. The charges can carry a maximum 15-year prison sentence.
Santana, 21, was born in Mexico, while Deleon, 23, was born in the Philippines. Both are lawful, permanent U.S. residents.
Defence attorneys did not immediately return calls for comment.
Federal investigators said Kabir met Deleon and Santana at a hookah bar and introduced them to the radical Islamist doctrine of the U.S.-born extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed last year in an American airstrike in Yemen.
Kabir, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Afghanistan, served in the Air Force from 2000 to 2001 at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, pulling aircraft or vehicle parts from a supply store. He was administratively separated for unknown reasons and was given an honourable discharge, the military said.
According to the court documents, Deleon said meeting Kabir was like encountering someone from the camps run by al-Awlaki or Osama bin Laden, who was killed in a U.S. raid last year on his compound in Pakistan.
Kabir was “basically a mujahid walking the streets of LA,” Deleon said, using the term for holy warrior, according to court documents. “He was just waiting to get his papers. And I met him at the point of his life where he was about to go.”
Authorities wouldn’t say how the investigation began, but they tracked Kabir’s travels last year and flagged violent extremist messages posted online by Santana.
Covert FBI agents had conversations with Santana online where he expressed his support of jihad and desire to join al-Qaida.
“We were on them for quite a while,” said FBI Special Agent David Bowdich.
In video calls from Afghanistan, Kabir told the trio he would arrange their meetings with terrorists, investigators said. Kabir added they could sleep in mosques or the homes of other jihadists once they arrived in Afghanistan.
Stateside, Deleon and Santana were eager about the prospects of being terrorists. When asked by the FBI informant if both men had thought about how it would feel to kill someone, Santana responded, “The more I think about it, the more it excites me.”
The two men also discussed where they could do the most damage. After considering going to Palestine and the Philippines, Santana said he preferred Afghanistan because the military bases there could easily be ambushed.
Santana said he was easily influenced by people growing up and spent time around gangs. He said converting to Islam was a good move for him because he could fit in and “actually fight for something that’s right,” according to court documents.
Jen Collins, who lives two doors down from Santana’s apartment in Upland, east of Los Angeles, said at least a dozen FBI agents swarmed his unit early Friday. “It was like something coming out of the movies or TV,” Collins said.
The apartment was shuttered on Tuesday, but someone inside removed a sign that read “Don’t burn the Qur’an, READ IT!” from a shuttered upstairs window as reporters gathered outside.
Court documents show the men talked about their propensity for violence.
Santana, who claimed he went to Mexico to learn how to shoot different kinds of guns and how to make explosives, wanted to be a sniper. Deleon said he hoped he could be on the front lines or use C-4, an explosive, in an attack.
Gojali, a U.S. citizen, was recruited in late September and he said he would be willing to kill, court documents state.
“I watch videos on the Internet, and I see what they are doing to our brothers and sisters. … It makes me cry, and it gets like I’m, like, so angered with them,” Gojali said.
This past summer, plans to travel to Afghanistan became clearer for the group.
They talked about how they would avoid detection. They talked about opening an Afghan orphanage or possibly posing as cologne salesmen. They finally devised a cover story that they were going to attend Kabir’s fictional wedding.
It’s unclear whether Kabir actually made contact with Taliban or al-Qaida fighters, but in an August video conversation with Deleon, Kabir was with a shiekh or an imam, the complaint said.
Kabir also had intended to go on a suicide mission earlier this month but got sick, according to the court documents. He indicated he would wait for the group, which included the FBI informant, before staging an attack, according to the affidavit.
Before going, Deleon said he was going to leave parents a farewell letter. Asked by the informant if Deleon could lie about his true intentions in the letter, Deleon said, it’s OK to lie in war. “I believe right now … we are in a state of war,” he said.
Using the informant’s debit card, Deleon bought four tickets for a flight from Mexico City to Istanbul scheduled to leave this past Sunday. Had the men made it to Afghanistan, they would have initially joined the Taliban and then graduate to al-Qaida, Bowdich said.
“They saw this as jihad. They saw this as their way to push out the aggressors,” Bowdich said.
Even if he failed in a terrorist training camp, Santana said, he would continue trying.
“If for some weird reason, if I can’t handle it, I’m not going to give up,” he said, according to court documents. “Like, because, this is my strong intention. This is what I desire of doing in this life.”