On November 19th, the FBI announced that it had charged four men from Southern California with planning to travel abroad to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The cell, led by Sohiel Omar Kabir, 34, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Afghanistan, also included Ralph Deleon, 23, a U.S. permanent resident from the Philippines, Miguel Alejandro Santana Vidriales (Santana), 21, a permanent resident from Mexico seeking naturalization, and Arifeen David Gojali, 21, a U.S. citizen. The group coalesced in 2010 when Kabir converted Deleon and Santana to Islam and began to radicalize them. Gojali was recruited into the cell in September 2012.
According to the criminal complaint, the investigation began in January 2012 when Santana was searched as he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border and was found to have a copy of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s English-language magazine, Inspire, in his possession. As the FBI began to investigate Santana, they reviewed his online social media accounts and discovered that they contained audio files of radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, articles from Inspire, and other statements supportive of mujahideen, including posts about Santana’s desire to fight to “help the brother pave the way to Jerusalem.” In reviewing Santana’s online activity, authorities found links between Santana and Kabir and Deleon. The three had “shared” posts supportive of terrorism on each other’s profiles, including videos produced by As-Sahab, Al Qaeda’s media wing, and “liked” them. Deleon and Santana later deleted everything related to Islam from their Facebook profiles in an attempt to avoid suspicion. Sometime before March 2012, the FBI made use of an undercover informant to make contact with Santana, who in turn introduced the informant to Deleon.
By this time, Kabir, purportedly was the group’s ringleader, had already traveled to Afghanistan via Germany and was allegedly trying to make contact with the Taliban and Al Qaeda and was paving the way for Deleon and Santana to join him. While Kabir was in Afghanistan, he maintained regular contact with Deleon and Santana through internet conversations, during which Kabir was introduced to the informant and Gojali. The group also discussed alternative plans of traveling to Yemen, the Palestinian territories, or the Philippines to join other terrorist organizations.
The complaint reveals that during the course of the investigation, Santana and Deleon had frequent contact with the informant. They discussed jihad and listen to Awlaki lectures while taking road trips, and visit shooting ranges and go paintballing to prepare for their future travels. The group also traveled together to renew Deleon’s passport and apply for Gojali’s passport.
Every member of the group reportedly expressed support for carrying out acts of terrorism. According to court documents, Kabir had been ready to carry out a “one-way mission” in Afghanistan days before the rest of the cell was scheduled to depart but the mission had been delayed. Deleon told the informant that he “wouldn’t have a problem” killing someone “if it’s for Allah,” because “right now… we are in a state of war.” Santana told the informant that he wanted to “to fight for something that’s right” and also said “the more I think about it [killing someone] the more it excites me.” Gojali similarly said to the informant, “you know I watch videos on the Internet and I see what they are doing to our brothers and sisters… it makes me cry and it gets like, I’m like so angered with them… and it gets me even more mad that I’m here… we are paying what taxes for them so they can build arms and weapons to go train their soldiers and go through our country and do that to our brothers and sisters you know.”
On November 15th, Deleon allegedly purchased tickets for himself, Santana, Gojali, and the informant for the first leg of their journey to Afghanistan, a flight from Mexico City to Istanbul. They were scheduled to leave the U.S. on November 18th, but Deleon, Santana, and Gojali were arrested on the 16th in California while Kabir was detained in Afghanistan by U.S. Special Forces.
The men are all charged with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and face up to 15 years in prison. Deleon, Santana and Gojali pleaded not guilty on December 5th. Kabir made an initial court appearance on December 4th after being repatriated from Afghanistan. The FBI stressed in its press release that the investigation is ongoing, leaving open the possibility of additional arrests.