By Dana Feldman
RIVERSIDE, California (Reuters) - Three California men accused of plotting to join al Qaeda and Taliban militants for training in Afghanistan pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to charges of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.
Prosecutors also revealed that a fourth man, accused ringleader and former U.S. Air Force service member Sohiel Omar Kabir, 34, had been returned to the United States from Afghanistan, where he was arrested last month.
The U.S. government has stepped up surveillance efforts to catch domestic and foreign militants since the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, and it has repeatedly warned that such groups still pose a threat.
The three other men accused in the case, all U.S. citizens or permanent residents, were arrested last month, two days before they planned to board planes for Mexico with the goal of flying to Turkey and eventually reaching Afghanistan, the FBI has said.
The FBI has added that the group's target list included military bases in Afghanistan. The three men arrested in California were identified as Ralph Kenneth Deleon, 23, and Miguel Vidriales Santana, 21, who authorities said both converted to Islam under Kabir's influence, as well as Arifeen David Gojali, 21.
Those three were indicted on charges of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists in a move that could see the case move to trial quickly by letting prosecutors skip a preliminary hearing in which they would lay out their case and a judge would determine if there was enough evidence for a trial.
All three pleaded not guilty before Magistrate Judge Oswald Parada in federal court in Riverside. They were dressed in orange jumpsuits and handcuffed. Deleon laughed and smiled at times during the hearing.
The case against the men relies in part on the work of an unidentified paid informant, who the FBI said was paid $250,000 plus "immigration benefits" in return for his 4 1/2 years of work on behalf of the government.
A lawyer for one of the men said the use of a paid informant in the case as problematic.
"When you have law enforcement, an undercover cop, working on a case, there's a certain trust factor there. When someone who is not law enforcement is working, someone who's receiving something beneficial, then that is another issue," said Randolph Driggs, who represents Deleon.
"The worst part, I think, is using a hired gun. They're the least trustworthy, receiving large amounts of financial gain. ... You question their objective," he added.
In conversations relayed or recorded by the informant, Deleon and Santana spoke about traveling to Afghanistan to join Kabir and engage in "violent jihad," according to the criminal complaint. It said they described potential targets for attacks, including U.S. military bases.
Kabir was born in Afghanistan and is a naturalized U.S. citizen who served in the U.S. Air Force from 2000 to 2001.
He made his initial court appearance on Tuesday in federal court in Riverside, Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said in an email.
Kabir, who was not included in the indictment against the three men but has been charged separately with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, was ordered held without bail until a detention hearing scheduled for Tuesday, Mrozek said. The cases were expected to ultimately be merged.
(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)