LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Four men with California ties accused of making arrangements to join up with al Qaeda and Taliban militants for training in Afghanistan have been arrested on U.S. charges of plotting to provide material support to terrorists, the FBI said.
A criminal complaint unsealed by federal authorities late on Monday accuses the four men of conspiring to take part in activities they intended as preparation for deadly attacks on Americans overseas, including U.S. military personnel.
The suspected ringleader, Sohiel Omar Kabir, 34, is accused of recruiting co-defendants Ralph Deleon, 23, and Miguel Alejandro Santana Vidriales, 21. Those two are in turn alleged to have enlisted a third man, Arifeen David Gojali, 21.
In conversations revealed by an unidentified FBI informant, Deleon and Santana spoke about traveling to Afghanistan to join Kabir and engage in "violent jihad," or Islamic holy war, according to the complaint. It said they described potential targets for attacks including U.S. military bases.
Together with Gojali, they also made visits to a Los Angeles firing range and a paint ball facility for shooting practice "to prepare for terrorist training oversees," the FBI said.
Kabir, a naturalized U.S. citizen who lived in the Los Angeles suburb of Pomona before going abroad in late 2011, was born in Afghanistan and served in the U.S. Air Force from 2000 to 2001, the FBI said.
He was apprehended in Afghanistan on Saturday and remains in custody there, FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller told Reuters.
The three others, all listed by the FBI as residing in Southern California's Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles, were arrested on Friday and made their initial court appearance later that day before a federal judge in Riverside.
Deleon, a legal permanent U.S. resident, was born in the Philippines; Santana, also a legal permanent U.S. resident, is a Mexican native whose U.S. citizenship application is pending, while Gojali is a U.S. citizen, the FBI said.
They each face up to 15 years in prison if convicted of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists.
Kabir left the United States to head overseas in December 2011 and arrived in July 2012 in Afghanistan, where he planned to introduce the other suspects to his al Qaeda contacts and Taliban contacts, according to the FBI complaint.
It said Kabir had introduced Deleon and Santana to radical Islamic teachings in 2010, including those of U.S.-born al Qaeda militant Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a U.S. drone attack in Yemen, and that Deleon and Santana then converted to Islam.
Deleon and Santana recruited Gojali in September 2012, the FBI alleges.
The criminal complaint outlines a series of communications and encounters among the various defendants and with an FBI informant identified only as a confidential sources.
In one such conversation, Santana and Deleon discussed their preferred roles for carrying out attacks, with Santana saying he had firearms experience and wanted to become a sniper, while Deleon said he wanted to be on the front line but that his second choice was the handling of explosives.
Both men also indicated they were willing to kill people they perceived to be enemies, the complaint said. When asked if he had thought about how it would feel to kill someone, Santana is quoted as telling the informant: "The more I think about it, the more it excites me."
In getting ready for their trip abroad, the FBI said the men removed all radical Islamic postings from their Facebook accounts. Last week, the trio sold personal belongings, including Deleon's car, and bought airline tickets to travel from Mexico City to Istanbul on November 18. They then planned to make their way to Kabul, the FBI said.
At their court appearances on Friday, Santana and Deleon were ordered to remain in federal custody, A detention hearing for Gojali was continued to November 26.
Additional reporting by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Todd Eastham