US suspects' alleged terror plot beset by hurdles, FBI says
The alleged aspiring terrorists "liked" each other's jihadist Facebook postings. When they played paintball in Corona to prepare for Holy War, they commended each other for going full-throttle for shaheed (martyrdom) against timid opponents.
One man vowed to start hiking to get to know mountain terrain, and maybe try skydiving to see how he handled fear. Yet even as he expected to go on a suicide mission once he reached the Middle East, at home in Ontario, he briefly fretted over selling his car to fund the trip.
The federal complaint unsealed this week against four Southern California men depicts them as intent on joining Al Qaeda and killing American and coalition troops. But their alleged road to martyrdom was rutted with endless logistical problems, dubious connections overseas and their own equivocating over the smallest decisions: How do you pack for a jihad?
Ralph Deleon, 23, told two of his cohorts and an FBI informant "to bring thermal underwear, an XBox, sports magazines, and durable shoes." They cleanly shaved to avoid suspicion in transit to the Middle East — just before their friend in Kabul, the fourth defendant, told them to arrive with full beards to gain the trust of the Taliban.
That friend got sick and had to miss his scheduled suicide mission. His cohorts in the U.S. told him to hold off on his next mission at least until they arrived, so he could introduce them to their handlers before he killed himself. They had already talked him out of leaving Afghanistan altogether for Yemen.
Miguel Santana, 21, Arifeen Gojali, 21, and Deleon booked their tickets from Mexico City to Istanbul on Thursday, and were taken into custody during a vehicle stop in Chino the next day, authorities said. Santana is a Mexican national who was in the process of getting his U.S. citizenship. Deleon is a legal permanent resident from the Philippines. Gojali is an American of Vietnamese descent.
The central figure in the alleged plot is Sohiel Kabir, 34, a native Afghan and naturalized U.S. citizen who has lived in Pomona and served in the U.S. Air Force from 2000 to 2001. He converted Santana and Deleon to Islam in 2010, then left for Afghanistan to make arrangements for the three of them to join the Taliban or Al Qaeda. (Santana and Deleon subsequently recruited Gojali in September.) Kabir was apprehended Saturday in Kabul.
Federal officials took the defendants' plans extremely seriously, and expended "extraordinary resources" to track and stop them, said David Bowdich, special agent in charge of counter-terrorism in Los Angeles, at a news conference Tuesday.
Undercover FBI operatives began chatting with Santana online in February, and the informant had infiltrated the group by March.
"Not only were they playing paintball, they were going to shooting ranges," Bowdich said. "They saw this as jihad."
The charges appear to be based largely on the work of the undercover informant, who has been on the FBI payroll for more than four years and has received $250,000 and "immigration benefits" for his work. According to the affidavit included in the criminal complaint, he was once convicted of trafficking pseudoephedrine, a chemical precursor to methamphetamine.
News of the arrests rattled neighbors of the defendants, who lived in quiet neighborhoods in Ontario, Upland and Riverside.
Just a few months earlier, Deleon was regularly playing basketball in the driveway of his parents' Ontario home with his 15-year-old next-door neighbor, Martin Garcia.
"I was in shock. I was like, damn!" Garcia said. "He's actually a really nice guy. He'd offer to take me out to dinner when we played basketball together."
"Then he became Muslim. He would try to influence me to become Muslim, tell me all these nice stories and it sounded pretty cool."
Deleon's younger brother told Garcia that Deleon was moving to Afghanistan.
"He just said he was tired of all that life," Garcia said. "He was just a regular teenager, partying and all that before."
Ulises Vargas, 23, said he attended classes at Ontario High School in 2006 with Deleon, and ate lunch with him and other friends almost daily. Deleon was outgoing — someone who played on the football team, made Homecoming Court and cracked jokes at lunch.
"It's surreal because it's somebody that you knew," Vargas said.
Deleon's father politely declined to comment, saying only, "It's too difficult."
The case comes after a series of similar federal investigations of individuals in terror plots targeting sites in this country and abroad.
In the Pacific Northwest, half a dozen radicals were stopped after planning to open a terror training camp near the Washington-Oregon border. In Minneapolis, some 20 young men were recruited to undergo training for attacks abroad; one of them, Shirwa Ahmed, died in a round of suicide bombings in Somalia.
Kabir first got to Afghanistan in July 2012 and informed Santana and Deleon that they would join the "students" (the Taliban) and then step up to join the "professors" (Al Qaeda), according to the affidavit. He said the "brothers would take care of everything." But by Aug. 31, he was telling them the situation with Al Qaeda was a "little complicated." In September, he told them his main priority was now in Yemen, and they asked why they should fly to Afghanistan if that was so. On Sept. 30, Kabir said there were more complications because the three were coming from the United States.
In California, the men kept practicing and planning, trying to get their various immigration problems fixed They scrubbed their Facebook sites of jihadist material to avoid detection.
All the while, the FBI was compiling evidence against them. According the complaint, Santana repeatedly spoke of the violence he would cause: "I wanna do C-4s if I could just put one of these trucks right here.... Just drive it into like the baddest military base.... I'm gonna take out the whole base."
His comments, as conveyed in the FBI affidavit, suggest he had no qualms about killing people: "The more I think about it the more it excites me," he proclaimed. He wanted to go to Afghanistan because it was the most active spot, like "South Central."
While driving home after shooting an M-4 rifle at the range one day, the confidential informant asked the group how Kabir got them to convert. "Santana said that, growing up, he was easily influenced by people," according to the affidavit. "Santana said that he would hear Kabir talk and then 'accepted Islam without knowing anything about it besides it being the truth.' "
Deleon's conversion to Islam was similarly easy, according to the affidavit.
When the informant asked him at one point how he felt about the possibility of killing someone, Deleon said, "I'll snipe the guy off. I'm so ready"
A neighbor of Deleon's, who declined to be identified because he "didn't want trouble," said that recently Deleon began to wear Muslim attire on Fridays, a traditional day of prayer for Muslims.
Neighbors of Santana said he too lived with his parents, who are said to be devoted Catholics who dote on their young daughter and love to play with her at the neighborhood pool.
Maria Villa, who lives a few houses down the street, said her son and Santana used to hang out skateboarding and playing video games when they were students at Upland High School. That friendship quickly cooled two weeks ago when her son called Santana to catch up. Santana lectured him about the glory of Islam and seemed paranoid that people were following him.
"He was just talking about Allah," Villa said. "He just started to talk about Allah and said, 'You guys shouldn't be around me. I know people are looking at me.' "
Times staff writers Richard A. Serrano, Victoria Kim, Wesley Lowery, Sam Quinones, Jessica Garrison and Hailey Branson-Potts contributed to this report.