LOS ANGELES (AP) — 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 Minneapolis 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 upon conviction.
Defense 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. He spent some time at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz., pulling aircraft or vehicle parts from a supply store. He was administratively separated for unknown reasons and was given an honorable discharge, the military said.
"It was a standard enlistment that ended early but not for reasons of misconduct," said Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek.
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.
Santana, 21, was born in Mexico, while Deleon, 23, was born in the Philippines. Both are lawful, permanent U.S. residents.
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.
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