LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Four men with California ties who are accused of arranging to join up with al Qaeda and Taliban militants for training in Afghanistan have been arrested on U.S. charges of plotting to provide material support to terrorists, the FBI said on Tuesday.
A criminal complaint unsealed by federal authorities late on Monday accuses the four men of conspiring to take part in activities they intended as preparation for deadly attacks on Americans overseas, including U.S. military personnel.
The suspected ringleader, Sohiel Omar Kabir, 34, is accused of recruiting co-defendants Ralph Deleon, 23, and Miguel Alejandro Santana Vidriales, 21, who converted to Islam under his influence. Those two are in turn alleged to have enlisted a third man, Arifeen David Gojali, 21.
In conversations relayed or recorded by an unidentified paid FBI informant, Deleon and Santana spoke about travelling to Afghanistan to join Kabir and engage in “violent jihad,” according to the complaint. It said they described potential targets for attacks including U.S. military bases.
Together with Gojali, they also made visits to a Los Angeles firing range and a paint ball facility for shooting practice “to prepare for terrorist training oversees,” the FBI said.
Kabir, a naturalized U.S. citizen who lived in the Los Angeles suburb of Pomona before going abroad in late 2011, was born in Afghanistan and served in the U.S. Air Force from 2000 to 2001, the FBI said.
He was apprehended in Afghanistan on Saturday and remains in custody there, FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller told Reuters.
The three others, all listed as living in Southern California’s Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles, were arrested outside an apartment complex in the town of Chino on Friday, two days before they had planned to fly from Mexico to Turkey, the FBI said.
They made their initial court appearance later that day before a federal judge in Riverside.
“There was no way they were getting on that plane,” David Bowdich, special agent in charge of the FBI’s counterterrorism division in Los Angeles, told reporters at a news conference.
Deleon, a legal permanent U.S. resident, was born in the Philippines. Santana, also a legal permanent U.S. resident, is a Mexican native with a pending U.S. citizenship application, while Gojali is a U.S. citizen of Vietnamese descent, the FBI said.
They each face up to 15 years in prison if convicted of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists.
Kabir left the United States for Germany last December and travelled this July to Afghanistan, where he planned to introduce the other men to his al Qaeda and Taliban contacts, according to the FBI complaint.
It said Kabir met Deleon and Santana in a hookah lounge and introduced them in 2010 to radical Islamic teachings, including those of U.S.-born al Qaeda militant Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a U.S. drone attack last year in Yemen.
Deleon and Santana, who were influenced by Kabir to convert to Islam, went on to recruit Gojali in September 2012, the FBI alleges.
FBI officials declined to discuss the suspects’ educational or personal backgrounds, and the criminal complaint sheds little light along those lines, except for a vague reference by Santana to time he had spent “around gangs.”
The criminal complaint outlines a series of encounters among the four men and with a confidential informant who the FBI said was paid $250,000 plus “immigration benefits” in return for his 4-1/2 years of work on behalf of the government.
In one such conversation, Santana and Deleon discussed their preferred roles for carrying out attacks, with Santana saying he had firearms experience and wanted to become a sniper, while Deleon said he wanted to be on the front line but that his second choice was the handling of explosives.
Both men indicated they were willing to kill people they perceived to be enemies, the complaint said. When asked if he had thought about how it would feel to kill someone, Santana is quoted as telling the informant: “The more I think about it, the more it excites me.”
The federal complaint also draws on conversations conducted online between Santana and a “covert employee” of the FBI.
In getting ready for their trip abroad, the FBI said the men removed radical Islamic postings from their Facebook accounts. Last week, the trio sold personal belongings, including Deleon’s car, and bought airline tickets to travel from Mexico City to Istanbul on November 18. They then planned to make their way to Kabul, the FBI said.
At their court appearances on Friday, Santana and Deleon were ordered to remain in federal custody, A detention hearing for Gojali was continued to November 26.
The FBI declined to elaborate on Kabir’s status or discuss when he might be returned to the United States to face charges, saying only that he remained in custody in Afghanistan.
Additional reporting by Lisa Shumaker and Dana Feldman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Xavier Briand