LOS ANGELES (AP) — Three Southern California men charged this week with plotting to kill Americans and bomb U.S. military bases overseas spent months preparing for a trip to Afghanistan where, authorities say, they hoped to join the Taliban and eventually graduate to the ranks of al-Qaida.
They seemed determined to reach their goal — even excited about the prospects of being terrorists — and weren't dissuaded when at least one of them suspected someone might be following them.
The men were unaware that one of their cohorts was an FBI informant who recorded conversations that helped thwart the plot by what authorities called a valid, homegrown extremist network.
"The main lesson learned is: Don't underestimate these groups," said FBI Special Agent David Bowdich. "This is a very serious case. I think ultimately the outcome was a success."
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.
Among those arrested last week were 34-year-old American Sohiel Omar Kabir, who was captured over the weekend in Afghanistan, Ralph Deleon, Miguel Alejandro Santana Vidriales and Arifeen David Gojali. All four men are facing charges of providing material support to terrorists, which can carry a maximum 15-year prison sentence.
Authorities said the men had bought tickets for a plane bound for Istanbul this past Sunday after Kabir, in video calls from Afghanistan, told the trio he would arrange their meetings with terrorists.
In a 77-page affidavit, federal investigators laid out their case against the men who made preparations by simulating combat with paintball rifles, wiping their Facebook profiles of any Islamic references and concocting cover stories.
While authorities don't believe there were any plans for an attack in the U.S., Deleon and Santana told the informant they would consider American jihad, according to the court documents unsealed in federal court Monday.
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, authorities said.
Federal investigators said Kabir met Deleon, 23, and Santana, 21, 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 was administratively separated for unknown reasons and was given an honorable discharge but not for reasons of misconduct, the military said.
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."
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, 21, a U.S. citizen, was recruited in late September and he said he would be willing to kill, court documents state.
Gojali's younger sister said the family learned of his arrest through news reports that left them stunned.
"He's not even remotely close to being violent at all," the 18-year-old sister told the Associated Press in an interview in front of the family home. "He's not capable of any of this."
She said Gojali, vulnerable, unemployed and lacking even a high school diploma, had recently become fast friends with Deleon, who was a compelling speaker and popular figure at the mosque the two attended.
"I just think he was lost. I think peer pressure is one of his biggest problems in life, and that's why he's in trouble now," said the sister, a freshman in community college who requested anonymity because she did not want to be associated with the alleged crimes.
Defense attorneys did not immediately return calls for comment.
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.
Using the informant's debit card, Deleon bought four tickets for a flight from Mexico City to Istanbul. Had the men made it to Afghanistan, they would have attended terrorist training camps and then targeted Americans living abroad, authorities said.
"They saw this as jihad. They saw this as their way to push out the aggressors," Bowdich said.
Associated Press writers Gillian Flaccus, Julie Watson, Raquel Maria Dillon and Shaya Tayefe Mohajer contributed to this report. Watson reported from San Diego.