From student to spy, and back again
Los Angeles Times
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Fernando Jara is something of a star in Kern County — and a mystery.
From humble beginnings, Jara founded a program to rehabilitate drug addicts and felons on a five-acre farm. He is completing a master's degree at Claremont School of Theology and will soon begin work on a doctorate and a law degree.
The energetic 37-year-old and his wife, a Kern County supervisor and rising political star, attended President Obama's inauguration in January at the invitation of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
It's an impressive resume for a junior high school dropout — with one exception. Five years are unaccounted for, and few people here know why.
In 2001, Jara disappeared from public view. He went on a journey that took him across the Middle East into the undercover world of Islamic extremism.
When he resurfaced, he was a changed man, for better and for worse.
Looking back, the email that Jara fired off shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks 12 years ago seems laughably naive.
Jara had just come from class at Bakersfield Community College, where he earned a high school equivalency degree and was taking college classes. Daymon Johnson, a professor of social science and philosophy, lamented in class that not enough Arabic-speaking Americans were volunteering to help fight terrorism.
Jara immediately headed to the campus library and tapped out an email to the Central Intelligence Agency.
He boasted that he was just the man to help root out Al Qaeda terrorists: He had converted to Islam and knew some Arabic. He said he had sharp survival instincts because his heroin-addicted father spent much of his life in prison.
The message ended, "Perhaps I can get closer than you can."
Jara had not been Muslim for long. When he converted to Islam four years before the Sept. 11 attacks, it was but the latest in a string of transformations for the former east Bakersfield gangbanger with Aztec warriors tattooed across his chest and back.
"Twelve years ago, Fernando was in search of something to believe in," Johnson said recently of the man he considers a friend. "In Chicano studies class, he hated white America. In philosophy class, he became an atheist and liked to quote Nietzsche. In religious studies, he converted to Islam, studied the Koran in Arabic and grew a long Arab beard."
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Jara switched core beliefs yet again. He went from zealous Muslim to radicalized American.
At the time of his email, intelligence agencies were eager to exploit an opportunity presented by the capture of John Walker Lindh, a U.S. citizen who had converted to Islam and gone abroad to join the Taliban. Intelligence officials believed other American citizens could pose as converts and infiltrate terrorist networks abroad.
Jara's email landed at the right moment. An FBI agent and a CIA officer drove to his home and enlisted the eager 26-year-old as a contract employee.
He was trained in California, Virginia and Washington, D.C., by Arabic language teachers, firearms experts, counterterrorism agents and retired Cold War intelligence officers, he said.
David Manning, 56, a law enforcement firearms instructor and founder of Tacfire in Ventura, said he began working with Jara in 2002 after the FBI called with a special request.
"They said he was under the radar and getting ready to go to Afghanistan to infiltrate the Taliban," Manning recalled. "I told them, 'I'm not doing this.' I didn't believe them.
"But then they came by and showed me their federal credentials," Manning said. "They told me I couldn't put anything in writing — and they were adamant about that."
In four weeks, Manning taught Jara how to fight with knives and guns.
On a recent weekend, Jara and Manning met for the first time in a decade. "You saved my life, Dave," Jara said. "You turned me into a one-man army."
After training, Jara worked connections among Muslims in California to gain access abroad. His conversion to Islam had occurred under the guidance of Sheikh Salim Morgan, a blond, blue-eyed imam in Madera known for anti-American sermons. Aside from Morgan, who now lives in Saudi Arabia, Jara had come to know imams and Muslim leaders in Northern California, some of whom had known Lindh and opened doors for him overseas.
Jara said he followed in Lindh's footsteps, getting letters of introduction in English and Arabic from Islamic associates vouching that he had turned to Islam before Sept. 11, openly criticized U.S. foreign policy and could be trusted.
With a salary of about $48,000, paid by CIA subcontractors with no public footprint, Jara said, he infiltrated extremist networks in Yemen and Afghanistan that had assassinated foreigners and targeted oil tankers and U.S. ships off the Yemen coast.
In Yemen, he gained the confidence of imams and community leaders by playing the role of an ultra-conservative Muslim convert. He kept track of everything he learned along the way — such as the personal habits of imams and the intricacies of their mosques — and forwarded the information to his handlers in the Middle East and United States.
Jara also infiltrated the school Lindh had attended, the Yemen Language Center in Sana. He also penetrated Al-Imam University, founded by Sheik Abdul Majeed Zindani, a cleric believed to have issued a decree leading to the 2000 attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole that killed 17 sailors. "It led me to a one-on-one relationship with Al-Zindani, who introduced me to the inner circle of mujahedin recruiters," Jara said.
In Afghanistan, he found routes that foreign fighters used to make their way into battle zones, and he tracked Americans who had joined with terrorists overseas.
"I hunted Westerners," he said.
The Times verified most details of Jara's story, reviewing documents he kept from his years of service, including his passport, international airline ticket receipts, hotel bills, pay stubs, weapons training school certificates and letters of recommendation in English and Arabic bearing his name.
The Times also reviewed his medical record and interviewed friends, associates and others who were close to Jara during his service.
The CIA declined to comment about Jara, as did an FBI spokesperson in Sacramento.
During his five years working for the government, Jara returned to Bakersfield from time to time. His closest friends say they saw a stunning transformation. The former Bakersfield thug was trim and self-assured, even arrogant. He had lots of cash and drove a new car.
Jara showed his friends snapshots of himself clutching an assault rifle and clad in Arab garb: a white silk shirt; a kaffiyeh, or head cloth, held around his head by a knotted wool agal; a curved dagger under his waistband.
Johnson saw the photos too. "Once, while on leave and visiting my home, he noticed one of my children's photographs of Britney Spears," Johnson said. "He was deeply moved by the idea of doing such dangerous work in foreign lands in order to maintain our freedom to indulge in such frivolous things."
But after several years, Jara's psyche started to crack.
Johnson said there came a time when Jara started to question the mission and the use of the intelligence he was gathering. "The military ended up bombing certain areas where there were civilian causalities," Johnson said. "That triggered profound emotional trauma in him."
The beginning of the end came at a watering hole in Sana frequented by Arab government agents, foreign correspondents and possible informants, Jara said. He had been told by his trainers not to hang out in such places.
A man sitting at the bar said he had seen Jara in the area and mused that he was either a foreign fighter or working in intelligence. Jara said he tried to deflect the comment, but doing so provoked another patron at the bar, who echoed the first man's comment.
"My cover had been blown," Jara recalled.
He called his U.S. government contacts for help and was told to leave Yemen immediately.
"I spent the next several weeks in hiding," Jara said. "Eventually, I arranged to get to the airport in a taxi. I was hugging the floorboards."
By the time he reached the United States in the summer of 2006, Jara was struggling with serious psychological issues. At a nondescript building in Chicago, "I was interrogated and given a polygraph test," he said. "Then I was ordered to turn in all my equipment.
"I had some sort of nervous breakdown. I started bawling like a baby."
He returned to Bakersfield with about $12,000 in severance pay, a drinking problem and signs of post-traumatic stress. He slept in his car with a Glock pistol on his lap.
"I was left alone," Jara said, adding that he had no help from the government in reentering a world where his skills no longer made sense.
Jara was arrested in 2007 for public drunkenness and a year later for resisting arrest. Kern County mental health counselors concluded that he had suffered from PTSD since leaving government service. The charges were dismissed after a year of probation.
Jara landed a job as a security guard and enrolled at Cal State Bakersfield, where Mark Baker, an international history professor, said he discovered that "one of my favorite students was living in a pickup truck in a campus parking lot."
Jara told Baker about his work overseas and its psychological consequences.
Baker and his wife gave Jara a room in their house for a few months. "At first, he stayed in that room, alone and quiet," said Baker, now an assistant professor of European history at Koc University in Istanbul, Turkey. "Eventually, he started emerging to socialize with us and our two children."
Jara put it another way: "Baker's family unconditionally loved me back to life."
Now, Jara is in full-throttle pursuit of spiritual redemption. He is completing his master's degree in divinity and runs Rockhill Farm, the nonprofit rehabilitation program he created.
But he also struggles with nightmares, hypervigilance and anxiety attacks. In conversation he is, at times, open, charming and brimming with confidence. Moments later, he becomes withdrawn, testy and argumentative.
In 2011, Jara married Leticia Perez, a Kern County public defender who in November became the first Latina elected as a county supervisor in the Central Valley.
Perez and Jara met in 1996, when Jara attended a church where Perez's father was minister. They went years without seeing each other again and started dating only in December 2005.
"Wow, had he changed," Perez recalled recently over dinner at a Bakersfield bar and grill. "He was simply dashing — in tiptop shape and on top of the world. He spoke fluent Arabic, had money and traveled extensively."
Jara said, "I was already cracking. But she couldn't see that."
She has seen it since, however. Keeping the marriage intact has been a struggle. "You have no idea what we've been through," Perez said.
As Perez and Jara spoke over dinner, Jara left the table and strode out into the night, fuming over some perceived slight in her narrative.
"See what I mean?" she asked, tears streaming down her face.
Aside from concerns about his well-being, Perez worries that Jara's past could hurt her political future, particularly his PTSD behavior and his decision to speak to a reporter about his activities overseas. By speaking out, he is breaking a confidentiality agreement he said he signed with the government.
Bakersfield criminal defense lawyer H.A. Sala, a friend, said breaking the confidentiality agreement could jeopardize Jara's chances of fulfilling another dream — becoming a lawyer.
"I'm not sure what the consequences could be," Sala said. "But I do know this: Fernando is a hero. He made an offer to the government, and the government accepted that offer. Then it used him to help promote the security of our country."
Jara's Rockhill Farm is on a patch of fertile flatlands roughly 100 miles north of Los Angeles.
Aided by Jara's father, who has been clean for four years, the felons and drug addicts who work there live in dorm rooms surrounded by a citrus orchard. They grow, harvest and sell vegetables and fruit and are given daily counseling and Bible study sessions led by Jara and professors from Claremont School of Theology.
"Ask me what redemption means, and I will point to Rockhill Farm rather than a Nativity scene," said Philip Clayton, dean of faculty at the Claremont campus. "It is a sacred place where early-to-rise physical and mental labor transforms the soul."
Jara hopes for a similar awakening. He has spent seven years trying to be a positive force, even as he struggles with his demons.
"I'm ashamed of some of the things that happened over there," he said. "I don't hurt people anymore. My soul couldn't take it."