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Four charged in homegrown terror plot: L.A. Now Live

November 21, 2012 |  8:39 am

Times Inland Empire correspondent Phil Willon will join L.A. Now Live at 9 a.m. to discuss the alleged terror plot involving four Southern California men who were arrested and charged after a months-long investigation into what authorities said was a plan to commit a "violent jihad."

A federal complaint unsealed this week against the suspects depicts them as intent on joining Al Qaeda and killing American and U.S.-led coalition troops in Afghanistan. But the court papers indicate that their alleged road to martyrdom was rutted with endless logistical problems, dubious connections overseas and their own equivocating over the smallest decisions: How do you pack for a jihad?

Three of the suspects lived in quiet neighborhoods in Ontario, Upland and Riverside. A fourth, Sohiel Kabir, 34, is a native Afghan and naturalized U.S. citizen who has lived in Pomona and served in the Air Force from 2000 to 2001.

Their alleged plan seemed -- at least based on the complaint -- amateur, with a social media path that easily pointed the way back to them.

The alleged aspiring terrorists "liked" each other's jihadist Facebook postings. When they played paintball in Corona to prepare, they commended each other for going full-throttle for shaheed (martyrdom) against timid opponents, according to the complaint. One man, the court papers said, vowed to start hiking to get to know mountain terrain, and maybe try skydiving to see how he handled fear.

But federal officials took the defendants' alleged plans extremely seriously, and expended "extraordinary resources" to track and stop them, David Bowdich, FBI special agent in charge of counter-terrorism in Los Angeles, said at a news conference Tuesday.

"Not only were they playing paintball, they were going to shooting ranges," Bowdich said. "They saw this as jihad."

The charges appear to be based largely on the work of the undercover informant, who has been on the FBI payroll for more than four years and has received $250,000 and "immigration benefits" for his work. According to the affidavit included in the criminal complaint, he was once convicted of trafficking pseudoephedrine, a chemical precursor to methamphetamine.

News of the arrests rattled neighbors of the defendants, who lived in quiet neighborhoods in Ontario, Upland and Riverside.

Just a few months earlier, Deleon was regularly playing basketball in the driveway of his parents' Ontario home with his 15-year-old next-door neighbor, Martin Garcia.

"I was in shock. I was like, damn!" Garcia said. "He's actually a really nice guy. He'd offer to take me out to dinner when we played basketball together."

"Then he became Muslim. He would try to influence me to become Muslim, tell me all these nice stories and it sounded pretty cool."

Deleon's younger brother told Garcia that Deleon was moving to Afghanistan.

"He just said he was tired of all that life," Garcia said. "He was just a regular teenager, partying and all that before."

Ulises Vargas, 23, said he attended classes at Ontario High School in 2006 with Deleon, and ate lunch with him and other friends almost daily. Deleon was outgoing — someone who played on the football team, made Homecoming Court and cracked jokes at lunch.

"It's surreal because it's somebody that you knew," Vargas said.

Deleon's father politely declined to comment, saying only, "It's too difficult."

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