With loud explosions and bright lights from flashbang grenades, heavily armed federal agents stormed a car near an apartment complex in Chino on Friday and arrested three men in connection with terrorist activities.

The men, from throughout the Inland Empire, had plotted for months to join al-Qaida in Afghanistan and planned to carry out terrorist acts on government facilities and kill members of the armed forces overseas, according to a criminal complaint filed by the FBI.

The trio had hoped to join another man - Sohiel Omar Kabir, 34, of Pomona - who had already traveled to Afghanistan and was arranging contacts with the terrorist organizations. Kabir, an Afghanistan native, served in the U.S. Air Force from 2000 to 2001.

THE DEFENDANTS

Sohiel Omar Kabir

Born in Afghanistan, Kabir is a 34-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen who was a resident of Pomona, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security and state records. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 2000 to 2001. The FBI learned he departed the U.S. for Germany in December 2011 and entered Afghanistan in July 2012, according to an indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Kabir introduced Miguel Alejandro Santana and Ralph Kenneth Deleon to the radical Islamist doctrine of Anwar al-Awlaki, a deceased al-Qaida leader.


Ralph Kenneth Deleon

Deleon is a 23-year-old permanent resident immigrant who resides in the city of Ontario. He was born in the Phillipines. He converted to Islam in 2010 and began engaging with Kabir and others online in discussions about jihad, including posting radical content to Facebook and expressing extremist views in comments. He is being detained, without bail, at the Central Detention Center in San Bernardino. A prelimijnary hearing has been scheduled for Dec. 3 and an arraignment for Dec. 5 in federal court.


Miguel Alejandro Santana

Santana is a 21-year-old permanent resident immigrant who resides in Upland. He was born in Mexico and has pending citizenship in the U.S.

Santana converted to Islam in 2010 and began engaging with Kabir and others online in discussions about jihad, including posting radical content to Facebook and expressing extremist views in comments.

Santana is being detained at the Central Detention Center in San Bernardino without bail. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Dec. 3 and an arraignment on Dec. 5.


Arifeen David Gojali

Gojali is a 21-year-old U.S. citizen by birth and a resident of Riverside. His attorney, John Aquilina, said Gojali, who is being held without bail at the Central Detention Center in San Bernardino, will appear in U.S. District Court in Riverside on Monday for a bond hearing, in which a judge will determine if bail will be set.

A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Dec. 3 and an arraignment for Dec. 5.

He was arrested Friday in Afghanistan by the FBI and Army Special Forces.

Ralph Deleon, 23, of Ontario and a native of the Philippines; Miguel Alejandro Santana Vidriales, 21, of Upland; and Arifeen David Gojali, 21, of Riverside were arrested Friday in Chino. They appeared Monday in Riverside federal court for a status hearing.

The men had planned to "provide material support to terrorists and (were) making arrangements to join al-Qaida or the Taliban in Afghanistan to kill U.S. soldiers and target U.S. interests overseas," said Bill Lewis, assistant director of the FBI's Los Angeles field office.

David Bowdich, FBI special agent in charge of the counterterrorism division, said the men did not appear to have local targets.

"We'd never allow it to get to that point," Bowdich said in a news conference at FBI Headquarters in Los Angeles on Tuesday. "We were on them for quite a while. The agents and detectives did a tremendous job in this case.

"There is no threat locally based around this case that we're aware of. This was an out of the continental United States threat."

Deleon, Santana and Gojali had purchased plane tickets to fly to Afghanistan and were planning to depart within a few days when they were arrested Friday.

"There was no way they were going to get on that plane," Bowdich said.

Bowdich said the men presented a serious threat.

"I think the main lesson learned is don't underestimate these groups," Bowdich said.

"They took very definitive steps to accomplish their plan, and their mission was definitely detrimental - to harm the safety of our troops overseas and quite frankly coalition forces as well."

Lengthy planning process

The men came to the attention of authorities in January when Santana was returning to the United States after spending time in Mexico, according to the complaint.

As he was crossing the border into San Ysidro, he was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials and asked about items he was bringing into the country.

Santana had a copy of "Inspire," a magazine that aims to find recruits for al-Qaida inside the United States and Europe.

Subsequently, Santana, who converted to Islam in July 2010, unwittingly engaged undercover federal agents online and further confirmed his support of jihad - a holy war waged on behalf of Islam as a religious duty.

According to the FBI's criminal complaint, Santana yearned to become a sniper and claimed he went to Mexico to train. He also claimed he learned to use firearms and practiced using and making explosives.

TIMELINE

  • 1988: Al Qaida is established by Osama bin Ladin, seeking to unite Muslims to fight the West and its influence in Muslim countries.
  • MARCH 2010: A U.S. Military Academy report sites evidence that American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi is inspiring young Muslims - including Americans - to learn more about jihad.
  • OCTOBER 2011: Miguel Santana, 21, of Upland posts "extremist media" on a social media site. His posts, according to authorities, include audio files of al-Awlaqi and other quotations and articles that support violent, armed conflict against the West. On the site, Santana says he converted to Islam in 2010 to engage in jihad.
  • DEC. 28: Sohiel Omar Kabir, 34, of Pomona travels from the U.S. to Germany, and by July 2012, Kabir received a one-way ticket from Amsterdam to Afghanistan. From there, he was communicating with Santana and Ralph Deleon, 23, of Ontario and urging them to join him in Afghanistan, where they would train with the Taliban, and ultimately with Al-Qaida.
  • FEB. 15: In a covert online dialogue with Santana, authorities say that Santana uses the word "fisabilillah" to refer to his alleged interest in violent jihad.
  • FEB. 29: In an online conversation, Santana allegedly states that Deleon and others want to engage in jihad. Up to this point, Kabir, Santana, and Deleon had been engaging via social media according to the FBI. Among the images, Santana "liked" a video, produced by Al-Qaida's media wing, shared by Kabir to his Facebook page.
  • MAY 26: Deleon states to an informant that he would welcome the chance to engage in "violent jihad" overseas or in the U.S., Deleon discusses plan to travel for jihad.
  • JULY 11: Santana goes to Mexican Consulate in San Bernardino to update his passport.
  • JULY 16: An FBI confidential source meets with Deleon in Ontario. Deleon allegedly tells the source he would join "AQ" or the Taliban. He allegedly did research on the Taliban, and reasoned that he was fighting for "the right cause."
  • JULY 18: The FBI's confidential source, Santana and Deleon meet at Deleon's home. They talked about where they should go and what group to join.
  • SEPT. 10: Deleon and Santana go to a firing range in Los Angeles. Deleon mentions to the FBI's confidential source that they will reap heavenly rewards for going to the shooting range.
  • SEPT. 17: Deleon and Santana discuss travel plans. Deleon says the latest they would leave was November.
  • SEPTEMBER 2012: Deleon and Santana recruit Arifeen David Gojali, 21, of Riverside to join them. Authorities say Gojali agreed to go and to "commit violent jihad."
  • SEPT. 23: Deleon, Santana, Gojali and the confidential source go to a paintball facility in Corona.
  • OCT. 17: Deleon lists his car for sale on Craigslist.
  • NOV. 15.: Santana tells the confidential source that he planned to tell his brother and sister that he was leaving and might never return. Deleon purchases airline tickets for the confidential source, Deleon, Santana and Gojali.
  • NOV. 16: Deleon, Santana, Gojali and Kabir are arrested on terrorist charges and booked into federal custody.

Source: FBI

Santana was friends with Deleon and the pair planned to go to Afghanistan with a third person, who was actually a confidential federal informant, the complaint says.

Deleon told the unnamed informant in July that the Taliban, a terrorist organization that has been supported by al-Qaida, was "fighting the right cause in their battle against the United States and their allies in Afghanistan."

On Aug. 8, Deleon told the informant about a Skype video conference he had with Kabir.

Kabir, who left the U.S. for Afghanistan in July, said he was living in Kabul near a mosque and that the men from the Inland Empire should visit him. Everything would be taken care of, he said.

Kabir told Santana and Deleon that he had arranged for their travel. 

Deleon frequently talked about the radical teachings of Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical American-born Muslim cleric who became a key figure in al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen. Al-Awlaki was killed Sept. 30, 2011, by a missile fired by an American drone aircraft.

Santana told the informant during an Aug. 10 Skype session with Kabir that their cover story for traveling to Afghanistan would be that they were going to work at an orphanage.

On Nov. 5, Deleon and Santana met with the informant and discussed what they should pack for their trip to Afghanistan and what route they were using to go to the war-ravished country.

Gojali, who was friends with Santana and showed an interest in jihad, joined the group Nov. 5. They decided to pack only cold weather clothing, socks and cold medicine for Kabir and an Xbox gaming system, according to the complaint.

On Nov. 7, Deleon told the informant that he spoke to Kabir the previous day and that Kabir said he might be going on a suicide mission. Kabir later explained that he did not go on the suicide mission because he was sick.

The informant on Nov. 13 met with the three Inland Empire men at a Chino apartment to search for online flight information to Afghanistan.

The informant on Thursday paid for the travel plans for the three to go to Afghanistan by using his debit card and their money. The informant then contacted his handler in the FBI.

Deleon, Santana and Gojali arranged to depart from Mexico with a layover in Istanbul, Turkey, before arriving in Afghanistan to begin their al-Qaida training.

Surprise at fallout

Gojali's attorney John Aquilina said Tuesday he had just received the indictment and hadn't had a chance to review it in its entirety.

"I don't have enough information to make any kind of comment," Aquilina said.

Gojali is being held without bail at the Central Detention Center in San Bernardino.

A bond hearing will be held at 1:30 p.m. Monday in U.S. District Court in Riverside, where Aquilina said he will request bail for Gojali.

Santana and Deleon were remanded to federal custody at the Central Detention Center in San Bernardino.

Neither Deleon's attorney, Randolph Driggs, nor Santana's attorney, Robert Scott, could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Kabir is in custody in Afghanistan and awaiting extradition to the United States.

If convicted, the defendants face a statutory maximum penalty of 15 years in federal prison.

The case, which is a continuing investigation by the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Riverside, will be prosecuted by the United States Attorney's Office for the Central District of California.

The federal informant, a convicted pseudoephedrine trafficker, was provided with $250,000 and immigration benefits for his efforts.

Deleon's girlfriend, Kimberly Nguyen, said in an interview Tuesday morning that Deleon could not have done what the federal government has accused him of doing.

"He became a peaceful person when he converted to Islam," she said.

"He stopped drinking and using drugs, and life was precious to him."


Staff writers Christina Villacorte and Joe Nelson contributed to this report.

Contact Doug via email, by phone at 909-386-3925 or on Twitter @crimeshutterbug.