Ralph Deleon, 23, of Ontario, Miguel Alejandro Vidriales Santana, 21, of Upland and Arifeen David Gojali, 21, of Riverside appeared before Magistrate Judge Oswald Parada in U.S. District Court, where, accompanied by their attorneys, they entered their pleas.
Prosecutors allege the three had been planning for nearly a year to fly to Afghanistan to join al-Qaida and the Taliban to carry out terrorist acts. They had purchased plane tickets and were planning to depart to Afghanistan within a few days of their arrest on Nov. 16, according to an indictment. They are accused of “providing material support to terrorists.”
Parada ordered the three men to return to court on Jan. 14 for a pretrial hearing and then on Jan. 22 for trial. He assigned the case to Magistrate Judge Virginia A. Phillips.
A fourth defendant, the alleged mastermind behind the plot, former Pomona resident Sohiel Omar Kabir, 34, was arrested Nov. 16 in Afghanistan by FBI agents and Army Special Forces.
He was subsequently brought back to California by authorities and appeared before Parada on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Riverside.
Parada ordered Kabir, who has not yet faced a grand jury or been indicted, be held without bond and scheduled a detention hearing for Dec. 11.
“They decided not to indict Kabir because he was in Afghanistan,” said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles. “It’s likely at some point that all four defendants will be consolidated.”
Kabir’s attorney, federal public defender Jeffrey Aaron, said Kabir has suffered serious head injuries, which he believes were inflicted during or after his arrest. The injuries include a gash to Kabir’s head that required it be surgically stapled and injuries to his face, Aaron said. In addition, Aaron said Kabir has memory problems and difficulty maintaining his balance.
“We think a lot of the injuries occurred during his arrest. We’re investigating what happened and why he wasn’t hospitalized,” Aaron said.
He said he could not comment on what Kabir has told him about his injuries.
FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said Kabir received combat-related injuries during his capture, was treated by U.S. medical personnel and cleared to travel.
Aaron doesn’t give much credibility to the allegations against his client.
“The allegations against him seem to be based on hearsay statements from the other defendants and an FBI snitch who we know is a convicted felon, and he’s been paid a quarter of a million dollars by the U.S. government as an informant,” said Aaron, adding that the informant has been allowed to stay in the U.S. even though he’s an illegal immigrant and eligible for deportation under federal law.
Authorities launched their investigation in January after federal border patrol agents reportedly found al-Qaida propaganda in Santana’s possession as he entered the U.S. from Mexico.
He had a printout of Inspire, an English language online magazine reported to be published by al-Qaida that aims to find recruits for al-Qaida in the U.S. and Europe, authorities said.
FBI agents said the defendants had allegedly honed their sharpshooting skills at paintball/air soft facilities across the Inland Empire, including Corona and Chino.
Authorities suspect Kabir recruited the three young men, two of whom he met at a hookah bar, to participate in terrorist activity. He had told them he was living in Kabul near a mosque and told the other defendants they should visit him upon their arrival there, according to the indictment.
Attorneys for Deleon, Vidriales Santana and Gojali said after Wednesday’s court hearing that they do not expect the case to go to trial as scheduled on Jan. 22.
They said they are still waiting to receive the evidence gathered by prosecutors so they could prepare their defenses.
“We haven’t even gotten the discovery yet, and it’s voluminous,” said Robert Scott, attorney for Vidriales Santana. “I understand there are a lot of wiretaps.”
Deleon’s attorney, Randolph Driggs, said clones of the external hard drives from the defendants’ computers are among the evidence defense attorneys are awaiting, as much of the case was built on the defendants’ social media and Internet activity.
Driggs described his client as “a very intelligent, nice young man” with “a very supportive family.”
Gojali’s attorney, John Aquilina, said he anticipated receiving the discovery from prosecutors in the next three weeks.
He declined to comment further, saying only that his client had an impeccable record until the time of his arrest.
“I can tell you he doesn’t have a criminal record to speak of. This is his first time through the adult court system,” Aquilina said. “As far as how he got involved in this, I really can’t talk about that.”