Sohiel Omar Kabir, 34, formerly of Pomona, Ralph Deleon, 23, of Ontario, Miguel Alejandro Santana Vidriales, 21, of Upland and Arifeen David Gojali, 21, of Riverside, were charged Monday with plotting to kill Americans and destroy U.S. targets overseas by joining al Qaeda and the Taliban. Three of the men appeared in U.S. District Court on Monday, while Kabir remains in custody in Afghanistan.
Kabir is from Afghanistan and is a naturalized U.S. citizen who briefly served in the U.S. Air Force from 2000-2001. He is said to be the ringleader of the group. Deleon was born in the Philippines but is a permanent resident alien in the U.S. Santana is from Mexico but is a permanent U.S. resident and had application for U.S. citizenship pending. Gojali is the only native-born U.S. citizen in the case.
Information on the plot was gathered after Deleon and Santana unknowingly told their plans to a confidential source working for the FBI. The complaint against the suspects accuses them of planning to attend terrorist training overseas, with the intent to kill American soldiers and others targeting American military personnel and bases overseas.
"This was a valid, what we consider an HVE, a valid homegrown violent extremist network," said David Bowdich of the FBI at a press conference. "They saw this as jihad and they saw this as their way to push out the aggressors."
The FBI says the group already put its plans for an attack in motion, discussing the roles they wanted to have in the attacks and conducting preliminary training in Southern California at firearms and paintball facilities to prepare for their terrorist training overseas.
Eyewitness News went to Santana's Upland home Monday. While none of his neighbors wanted to speak on-camera, they did say they saw FBI agents at the home Friday, which was the day the men were arrested. The men had bought plane tickets for a flight from Mexico City to Istanbul on Sunday, on their way to Afghanistan, according to the FBI.
The arrests follow an investigation which alleges Kabir introduced Deleon and Santana to radical and violent Islamic doctrine and various extremist material, and was communicating over the Internet to arrange for the two men to join him in Afghanistan where he would meet up with the Taliban and al Qaeda and then commit violent jihad. They later recruited Gojali.
Members of a mosque in Pomona said Gojali and his family were longtime members there. Some said Gojali would often help the homeless who would gather in the rear of the mosque. They said they were in disbelief over the allegations.
"He's a very honest and decent guy, and everything that they're saying about him in the news is completely incorrect," said Gojali's longtime friend, Adam Basme. "I've never heard him say anything radical or extremist the way that they're presenting him."
If convicted, the defendants each face a maximum penalty of 15 years in federal prison. A preliminary hearing is set for Dec. 3.
"You never know who your neighbors are or what they're doing," neighbor Ann Altman said. "When this can happen here, it can happen anywhere. You just don't know what they're into."
The FBI informant received about $250,000 for about four years of work.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.