The Plot Thickens
By Tommy Purvis
Is a federal case against four homegrown “terrorists” actually based on compelling evidence—or just a bunch hearsay and Facebook “likes?”
An underground jihadi e-zine made for a Western audience, Facebook activities, CIA assassinations, questionable weapons training and a paid confidential source with a wire and legal trouble—and the feds backing him—can all be found in a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Riverside. It’s all part of what promises to be the Inland Empire’s most sensational terror plot.
According to the feds, four men with IE ties—Arifeen David Gojali, Ralph Deleon, Miguel Alejandro “Santana” Vidriales and Sohiel Omar Kabir—were plotting to join al-Qaeda and kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.
But did members of the FBI’s Riverside-based Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) really end up intercepting a sophisticated, dead-serious terror plot, or is the case against the men highly questionable, relying on entrapment, an untrustworthy informant and the accused’s reading and social-media habits? Did the feds really stop an American jihad about to launch or just a bunch of wannabe terrorists?
The Alleged Players
The JTTF has accused Kabir, a 34-year-old former resident of Pomona and a naturalized U.. citizen who was born in Afghanistan, of being the emir—or military leader—of a well-trained four-person terrorist sleeper cell. The government alleges the group “conspired to provide material support and resources to terrorists” with far-reaching plans to attack U.S. military installations in Afghanistan to kill Coalition Forces. The federal complaint alleges that three of the men were caught less than 48 hours before a flight from Mexico City to Istanbul, Turkey in an alleged effort to join Kabir in Kabul for jihad.
Deleon, a 23-year-old resident alien, born in the Philippines and living in Ontario, is the alleged domestic shot caller. Vidriales, a 21-year-old from Mexico who is a legal resident living in Upland, converted from Catholicism to Islam. Gojali, 21, of Riverside, is a U.S.-born citizen who jumped aboard the terrorist caravan to Khorasan—a traditional Islamic reference to Central Asia—at the last minute.
Gojali and Vidriales were known to pray at the Cham American Muslim Community mosque in Pomona alongside the FBI’s confidential source. All four men pled “not guilty” this month to several charges that carry a maximum 15-year prison term.
“Let the Indictment Speak for Itself”
The JTTF alleges Kabir had already made significant inroads reaching out to the Taliban—referred to as “the students” in the document—and was looking to make contact with “the professors” or al-Qaeda. The former U.S. Air Force airman was roughly arrested in a “snatch and grab” operation under the cover of darkness in Afghanistan’s war-torn capital by the FBI and Army Special Forces on Nov. 17.
The previous day a raid on a car with flashbang grenades and heavily armed federal agents in a Chino apartment complex parking lot took down Deleon, Vidriales and Gojali. The night before, the confidential informant had bought airfare for himself, Deleon, Vidriales and Gojali using his debit card.
Deleon contributed an unspecified amount of cash that he got for selling his car on Craigslist along with $210 from Gojali. The FBI had already rushed the expedited request that Gojali had submitted for his passport. The government alleges that Kabir was going to email the men notarized wedding invitations to use as proof of their reason to travel to Afghanistan.
“Now that the prosecution is under way, the FBI is going to decline comment and let the indictment speak for itself,” FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller told the Weekly a few days after Kabir made his first appearance in federal court last week.
Multiple Hearsay Sources
Federal Public Defender Jeffrey Aaron told the Weekly that Kabir was in poor condition during the proceeding after being in military custody for two weeks. The alleged terrorist mastermind was suffering from a broken facial bone and memory loss. Staples are in his head and he has possible retina damage to his eye, according to Aaron.
The federal complaint implies that Kabir was at a terrorist training camp and that he had put off a prior suicide mission by calling in sick to the Taliban. Aaron told the Weekly that Kabir was simply living with family members in Kabul.
“It is troubling that the allegations seemed to be based on multiple hearsay sources and the work of a paid informant with a poor record,” Aaron told the Weekly.
The criminal complaint cites the confidential source as being a convicted pseudoephedrine (read: meth precursor) trafficker. This informant has received immigration benefits and $250,000 from the government in the past four years. Eimiller told the Weekly that the FBI investigation was fully legal and that Kabir’s injuries were combat-related. Eimiller and the military both insist that Kabir was treated before his return to U.S. soil.
Open Source Jihad
Special Agent N. T. Elias of the JTTF claims that the terror investigation began when a downloaded copy of Inspire magazine’s issue No. 7 was found on Vidriales by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in San Ysidro on a return trip from Mexico in January.
The online English-language magazine that reads like Maxim-meets-the-mujahideen is reportedly published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The purported goal of the quarterly Islamist rag is to cause “open source jihad” or multiple rounds of simple, small-scale terrorist attacks.
The editorial content mixes think pieces in memory of martyrs to explosive training like the federal complaint-cited article: “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.” Vidriales allegedly told the confidential source and an FBI operative about his unsuccessful effort to make an “oxide-peroxide thing, or whatever, from that magazine, that Inspire.”
The men also allegedly met with the confidential source to train with weapons at a gun range. Other trips to target practice were also made to a Corona paintball facility in which the men allegedly chose weapons that handled like automatic firearms.
“I Give Allegiance to You”
The CBP contact with Vidriales and his lawful possession of Inspire led to an FBI “on-line covert employee” (OCE) posing as an undercover al-Qaeda operative to Vidriales through social media within a month.
Vidriales and the OCE discussed Vidriales’ use of the word fisabilillah—an Arabic phrase meaning “for the sake of God”—and his interest in jihad. Vidriales allegedly told the OCE he used the phrase jihad fisabilillah in regards to violence, not charity. The government alleges that Vidriales wanted to become a sniper and that he had undergone weapons training in Mexico. The federal complaint even suggests that Vidriales’ family is involved in narcotic trafficking.
A window sticker in his Upland apartment reads “Don’t burn the Qur’an. Read it.”
On March 9, the OCE had another online conversation with Vidriales. The militant troller allegedly told the undercover federal agent that he wanted to make a pledge to his al-Qaida emir after he was presented with the chance. The complaint states that the OCE told Vidriales to type the following pledge:
O our beloved Emir, on behalf of my brothers in al-Qaeda, commanders and soldiers. I say: I give allegiance to you to follow the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Messenger, to listen and obey in good and bad, to have altruism and not dispute with people in their fields except when we see clear unbelief that is prove [sic] in the revelation from Allah as much as we can.
In the entire 77-page federal complaint, this online exchange between Vidriales and the OCE appears to be the only factor linking the four accused men to al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group for that matter.
From Inspirational to Operational
Samir Khan is an alleged American-born jihadist and former publicist for Inspire. The Denver native was tried in absentia in a Yemen court before he was assassinated in a U.S. drone attack last September. It was the same attack that killed Anwar al-Awlaqi—the so-called American-born propagandist and former spokesperson for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—who was the target of the assassination. Two weeks after this assassination, al-Awlaqi’s teenage son was also targeted and killed in a drone attack.
The federal government alleges that al-Awlaqi is responsible for the “Underwear Bomber” and a slew of other unsuccessful terror plots that ended up late-night television punch lines. Still, the JTTF claims that al-Awlaqi is the key figure in the alleged IE terror plot that took the group from the inspirational to the operational.
Kabir allegedly recruited his IE terror clique through political conversations, hookah smoking sessions and listening to audio recordings of al-Awlaqi lectures entitled “The Journey of Soul” and “Faces of the Grave – The Day of Judgment.” The FBI’s confidential informant told the JTTF that Vidriales had told him, “This is how I came to Islam, by listening to him,” referring to al-Awlaqi.
An entire section of the criminal complaint titled “Defendants Social Media” cites Kabir posting status updates with al-Awlaqi content and Deleon and Vidriales “liking” and “sharing” the effort.
“His messages, his lessons . . . there was an extensive amount of their admiration for him and, quite frankly idolizing him, al-Awlaqi,” David Bowdich, the FBI special agent in charge of the bureau’s Counterterrorist Division in Los Angeles, told assembled media during a late November news conference.
The feds’ evidence against the men—including materials Deleon gave the informant—includes a thumb drive with 32 audio files of lessons and lectures by al-Awlaqi and a copy of his popular work “44 Ways to Support Jihad.”
Stray Dogs and Virtual Armies: Radicalization and Recruitment to Jihadist Terrorism in the United States Since 9/11 is an in-depth study released in August 2011 from the Santa Monica-based Research and Development (RAND) Corporation. The report from the nonprofit think tank found in the 10 years after 9/11 that a total of 176 Americans have been indicted, arrested or otherwise identified as jihadist terrorists or their supporters.
Brian Michael Jenkins—the study’s author and a terrorism expert—determined that those 176 U.S. citizens were involved in 82 investigations. Nearly half of those were disclosed in the first two years of the Obama Administration.
The report found that these so-called “homegrown terrorists” worked alone or with others to plan actions, implement terrorist activities or contribute financial or other material support to others’ terrorist activities. Some became radicalized in the United States and then traveled abroad to conduct terrorist activities against western targets.
“America’s homegrown jihadist terrorists have not shown great determination or very much competence,” Jenkins said in a written statement. “A careful analysis of these cases shows that the United States must remain vigilant, but not overreact.”
Jenkins found that of the aforementioned 82 cases, 32 jihadist plots hatched by homegrown terrorists since 9/11 got much beyond the discussion stage. In fact, only 10 were able to develop into anything that came across as an operational plan with an identified specific target and credible means of attack. Six of those 10 were pushed along with federal resources as the subject of FBI-JTTF sting operations.
“When provided with bombs, they were willing to act, but only two actually tried to build devices on their own, and only one of these actually built an incendiary device, which failed to function,” Jenkins wrote. “In a country where guns are readily available, only two—and the only two to succeed—actually obtained guns and used them to kill Americans.”
Kabir is scheduled to be arraigned Dec. 19.