News Column

Digital data links Inland Empire men to suspected terrorist activity

August 20, 2014

By Joe Nelson, San Bernardino County Sun, Calif.



Aug. 20--RIVERSIDE -- The playlist on Upland terrorism suspect Miguel Santana's I-pod wasn't like that of most college-aged men. No rock, hip hop or dub step. Instead, what FBI Special Agent Michael Nader said he found on Santana's I-pod following his arrest was more than a dozen audio files of lectures by Islamic extremists.

"Most of them were lectures or sermons from Anwar Al-Awlaki," Nader said of the now deceased Islamic militant and suspected al-Qaida recruiter. It came during his testimony Tuesday in U.S. District Court in the trial of two Inland Empire men accused of conspiring with Santana and another man to commit acts of terrorism against American military and civilian targets overseas.

Nader took the witness stand late Tuesday afternoon, following a day of testimony by several FBI agents and computer forensic examiners who testified about computers, cell phones, I-pods and other electronic hardware seized during searches at the suspects' homes in Upland, Ontario and Pomona on Nov. 16, 2012, the day of their arrest.

Federal prosecutors have been laying a foundation of the electronic data collected during the investigation, which proved essential in bringing an indictment against the four suspects. That data included numerous pro-Islam posts and message exchanges between the defendants on their Facebook and Tumblr pages and e-mails and telephone text messages hatching their plans to travel to Afghanistan, train with the Taliban and join al-Qaida to commit a violent jihad against American targets.

Only two of the suspects -- Sohiel Omar Kabir, 36, of Pomona, and Ralph De Leon, 25, of Ontario, are standing trial in the case. Santana and Arifeen David Gojali, 23, of Riverside, have pleaded guilty and are expected to testify against Kabir and De Leon next week.

Defense attorneys argue the defendants were no terrorists, just a group of misdirected and directionless individuals who share an affinity for smoking marijuana and engaging in big talk. And that's all the defense attorneys say the defendants are guilty of: a lot of talk.

Nader also discovered on Santana's I-pod playlist a PDF file named "AK47USARMYOPERATIONMANUAL" and another named "AK47."

Prosecutors allege De Leon, Santana and Gojali visited paintball parks and Los Angeles firing ranges to hone their shooting skills in preparation for their training in Afghanistan.

Nader testified that the FBI had been tracking Santana's online activity, particularly his social media activity, which unearthed the alleged planned terrorist activity and linked authorities to the other suspects. Authorities were alerted to Santana after he passed through the U.S./Mexican border in January 2012, and a border and customs enforcement officer found in his possession a copy of the jihad magazine "Inspire" and other extremist literature and suspicious materials. Santana told the officer at the time that he had been in Mexico with his grandmother to get dental work done, according to prior court testimony.

Arnell Rivera, a forensics examiner with the Orange County Regional Computer Forensic Laboratory and an investigator with the Orange County District Attorney's Office, said he assisted the FBI in its investigation and examined laptop computers seized from De Leon's home and the home of Kabir's family in Pomona. He prepared a CD for investigators that included data/evidence found on the computers, including multiple photographs of Anwar Al-Awlaki and jihad-related quotes including one that read "Jihad is not dependant on any particular land."

Kabir and De Leon stand charged with five felony counts of conspiracy to commit terrorist acts including kidnapping and murder against American military and civilian targets overseas in Afghanistan and other countries. They face life in federal prison if convicted on all charges.

Kabir is suspected of persuading De Leon and Santana, whom he met at the Velvet Room hookah bar in Ontario in 2010, to convert to Islam and exposed the two to radical and violent Islamic doctrine. The three hatched plans to join the Taliban for training, then ultimately al-Qaida. De Leon dreamed of being on the front lines and using explosives, while Santana aspired to be a sniper, according to the indictment.

In September 2012, De Leon recruited Gojali to join their cause, and De Leon, Santana and Gojali began preparations to leave the Inland Empire for Afghanistan, where they were to meet up with Kabir, a native of Kabul, Afghanistan, who had left his home in Pomona in December 2011 to live in Germany with family. In July 2012, Kabir traveled to Kabul.

De Leon, Santana and Gojali planned to drive to Mexico City, then catch a plane to Istanbul, Turkey. From there, they planned to fly to Afghanistan and rendezvous with Taliban or al-Qaida operatives to begin their terrorist training, authorities said.

The plan was foiled when FBI agents stopped them at a Chino apartment complex on Nov. 16, 2012, and arrested De Leon, Santana and Gojali. Kabir was arrested in Afghanistan and extradited to the U.S. to face trial.

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(c)2014 the San Bernardino County Sun (San Bernardino, Calif.)

Visit the San Bernardino County Sun (San Bernardino, Calif.) at www.sbsun.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services


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Source: San Bernardino County Sun (CA)


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