LOS ANGELES -- Three California men excited at the prospect of training in Afghanistan to become terrorists prepared, authorities say, by simulating combat with paintball rifles, wiping their Facebook profiles of any Islamic references and concocting cover stories.
Just two days before they were going to board a plane for Istanbul -- and then on to Afghanistan -- FBI agents thwarted plans that officials said included killing Americans and bombing U.S. military bases overseas.
The arrests last week in the United States and of the man said to be the ringleader, American Sohiel Omar Kabir, in Afghanistan was laid out in a 77-page affidavit, which included references to the group's online video conversations and audio recordings.
While authorities don't believe there were any plans for an attack in the United States, two of the men arrested told a confidential FBI informant that they would consider American jihad, according to the documents unsealed Monday in federal court.
The arrests are the latest in a series of cases in which U.S. residents were targeted to become terrorists. Last month, a Minneapolis man was convicted of helping send young men to Somalia to join the al-Qaida-linked terrorist group al-Shabab.
Along with Mr. Kabir, Ralph Deleon, Miguel Alejandro Santana Vidriales and Arifeen David Gojali are facing charges of providing material support to terrorists. The charges can carry a maximum 15-year prison sentence. Defense attorneys did not immediately return calls for comment.
Federal investigators said Mr. Kabir met Mr. Deleon and Mr. Santana at a hookah bar and introduced them to the radical Islamist doctrine of the U.S.-born extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed last year in a U.S. airstrike in Yemen.
Mr. Kabir, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Afghanistan, served in the Air Force from 2000 to 2001. He spent some time at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz., pulling aircraft or vehicle parts from a supply store. He was administratively separated for unknown reasons and given an honorable discharge, the military said.
According to the court documents, Mr. Deleon said meeting Mr. Kabir was like encountering someone from camps run by Awlaki or al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, killed in a U.S. raid last year on his Pakistan compound. Mr. Kabir was "basically a mujahid walking the streets of LA," Mr. Deleon said, using the term for holy warrior, according to court documents.
Authorities wouldn't say how the investigation began, but they tracked Mr. Kabir's travels last year and flagged violent extremist messages posted online by Mr. Santana. Covert FBI agents had conversations with Mr. Santana online during which he expressed his support of jihad and desire to join al-Qaida. "We were on them for quite a while," FBI Special Agent David Bowdich said.
In video calls from Afghanistan, Mr. Kabir told the trio that he would arrange their meetings with terrorists, investigators said. Mr. Kabir added that they could sleep in mosques or homes of other jihadists once they arrived in Afghanistan.
Stateside, Mr. Deleon and Mr. Santana were eager about the prospects of becoming terrorists.
When asked by the FBI informant whether both men had thought about how it would feel to kill someone, Mr. Santana responded, "The more I think about it, the more it excites me."
The two men also discussed where they could do the most damage. After considering Palestine and the Philippines, Mr. Santana said he preferred Afghanistan because the military bases there could easily be ambushed.
Mr. Santana said he was easily influenced by people growing up and spent time around gangs. He said converting to Islam was a good move for him because he could fit in and "actually fight for something that's right," according to court documents.
Mr. Santana, 21, was born in Mexico, while Mr. Deleon, 23, was born in the Philippines. Both are lawful, permanent U.S. residents.
Mr. Deleon studied business administration at California State University, San Bernardino, but withdrew in September after first enrolling five years ago, said university spokesman Joe Gutierrez.
Court documents show that the men talked about their propensity for violence. Mr. Santana, who claimed that he went to Mexico to learn how to shoot different kinds of guns and how to make explosives, wanted to be a sniper. Mr. Deleon said he hoped that he could be on the front lines or use C-4, an explosive, in an attack.
Mr. Gojali, a U.S. citizen, was recruited in late September and said he would be willing to kill, court documents state.
"I watch videos on the Internet, and I see what they are doing to our brothers and sisters. ... It makes me cry, and it gets like I'm, like, so angered with them," he said.
It's unclear whether Mr. Kabir actually made contact with Taliban or al-Qaida fighters.